The Trinity has been an essential doctrine of the Christian worldview. The Trinity is what distinguishes Christianity from all other religious worldviews like Islam and Judaism. One could maintain then that with caeteris paribus that if there are good reasons for thinking that the Trinity is true then there are also good reasons for thinking that Christianity is true. In addition, arguments which attempt to demonstrate that the Trinity is logically incoherent will also show by implication that the Christian worldview is logically incoherent because the Trinity is an essential feature of Christianity. Thus, questions about the coherence and the warrant of the Trinity have a direct relationship to coherence and warrant of the Christian worldview. This is why it is important to give a philosophical justification for the doctrine of the Trinity and to defend it against any charges of incoherence. This is why it is the purpose of this paper to provide an argument for thinking that the Trinity is true and to defend it against any charges of irrationality and incoherence. I do this by first defining the doctrine of the Trinity. Secondly, I give an argument for the Trinity from perfect being theology and the highest conception of Love. Thirdly, I give a defeater for an argument which attempts to show that the Trinity is logically incoherent. Lastly, I provide a modified immaterial constitution model of the Trinity which attempts to be both theologically and philosophically attractive.
Defining the Trinity
Classical Trinitarian theism is committed to the following propositions:
1) There is one God
2) The person of the Father is God
3) The person of the Son is God
4) The person of the Spirit is God
5) All three of the Divine persons are distinct from one another.
6) All of the persons are fully God
All six of these propositions are from traditional and biblical Trinitarianism. 1 is designed to secure the monotheistic unity to all three of the persons. 1 is also used to deny tri-theism and to affirm that there is only one Divine substance. 2-4 is used to ensure that each of the members of the Trinity is Divine and that there is no ontological subordinationism. 5 is used to guard against modalism which would deny the real distinctions between each of the persons of the Trinity. Finally, 6 is used to ensure that each member of the Trinity is not diminished in His Divinity. We want to be able to say that in some sense each member of the Trinity is fully God because there are passages of scripture that seem to commit us to this. Colossians 2:9 seems to suggest that Jesus had fully Divinity and if there is no ontological subordinationism in the Trinity then it would follow that each of the other two members have fully Divinity as well. Now that I have briefly outlined the propositions that one must be committed to in order to hold to the Trinity, I provide an argument for the Trinity.
An Argument for the Trinity
In this section I provide an argument for thinking that Trinitarian theism is true. The sort of argument I give finds its origins in the work of Richard St. Victor and has been restated in a slightly different form by Richard Swinburne
Richard Swinbourne, The Christian God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1994); Ruben Angelici, Richard of Saint Victor On the Trinity: English Translation and Commentary (Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011).
. I present the structure of the argument and then I defend only the contentious premises. What is contentious will vary from context to context, but since this is a paper defending trinitarianism I will assume that the skeptic I am dealing with assumes the existence of a Unitarian God and this skeptic thinks that this Unitarian God is the greatest possible being. The argument structure is as follows:
1) The highest degree of love entails two persons, P1 and P2 having self-giving love for each other and this self-giving love is such that they have coperative self-giving love for another third person, P3 (let us call this sort of love GL for “greatest love”).
2) There is one God.
3) God is the greatest possible being.
4) The greatest possible being has every moral perfection to the highest degree
5) Love is a moral perfection
6) God has love to the highest degree (GL)
7) God either has GL entirely contained in the Divine substance or it is not entirely contained in the Divine substance.
8) It is false that GL is not entirely contained in the Divine substance
9) God has GL entirely contained within the Divine substance
10) God is three persons
In premise 1 GL entails two important aspects for supporting the entire argument. The first aspect is that GL involves one person having self-giving love for another person. In terms of the argument above what I need to establish is that this self-giving love between two persons is a better sort of love than giving love only to one’s self. The sort of love where one person just entirely loves himself is typically seen as more of a vice than a virtue. This sort of love only for oneself we would call selfish and surely selfless love for another is a greater degree of love than selfish love. Therefore, GL will at least entail self-giving love between two persons. The second aspect that GL will entail is cooperative self-giving love between at least two persons for another third person. Surely two persons who love each other in such a way that they function together for the purpose of having a cooperative self-giving love for another person has a higher quality of love than just two persons who love each in a self-giving manner. And because two persons having self-giving love for another third person is higher degree of love than just two persons having self-giving love then the GL will entail two persons having cooperative self-giving love for another person.
I will spend the most space on Premises 7-8 for they are the most contentious premises for one who ascribes to Unitarian views of God. The Unitarian might argue that GL can be grounded in created beings in 7. This is to say that GL is such that it can necessarily be grounded in human beings or beings that are very much like human beings. And although created beings begin to exist they might argue that God had this sort of love prior to their existence on the basis of his foreknowledge.
This response lacks plausibility for a variety of reasons. One reason is that God has libertarian free will so that he has the choice to create beings or to not create beings. The Unitarian might ask why think that God has libertarian free will? Here is a reason: God is the greatest possible being so he will have libertarian free will because it is better to have libertarian free will rather than not. In order, to have this sort of freedom he has to be a Trinitarian God because if he were Unitarian God he would have to create in order to exemplify GL and thereby not be libertarianly free. Another reason why this response lacks plausibility is that it seems like love between infinite persons is a higher degree of love rather than love just between an infinite person and a finite person. Love between divine persons is better to have than mere divine love for a created person and because God has GL he will have love between divine persons. It would also seem like love between three divine persons (as opposed to bringing in a created persons for P1, P2, or P3) is also the highest quality of love which God would necessarily have as the greatest possible being. A final worry about this Unitarian move is that it makes God’s attributes of love dependent upon the creation and surely a God who is dependent on the lesser creation for his divine attributes is not great as a God who is only dependent upon his own greatness for His divine attribute of love. So given that God is the greatest possible being he will only be dependent on himself for his divine attributes and Trinitarianism would follow from this. For these reasons then the Unitarian response is rebutted.
The premises follow to the conclusion that there are three persons in God, but there is still a worry that one might try to argue for more persons than three in the Godhead from principles stemming from this argument. In response to this worry: It is hard for me see and to come up with entailments from the highest degree of love which suggests that there are more than three persons. Furthermore, if one just adds more persons the conditions for self-giving love and cooperative love would be satisfied by premise 1 in the same way whether you have three persons or nine persons. The reason why the argument would only prove three persons as opposed to nine is that three persons are simpler and given Ockham’s razor we ought to prefer the simpler theories. Thus, there is no reason to think that we are in need of a fourth person in the Godhead given the principle of love found in premise 1 and we only have reason for thinking that there are three persons in God.
Defeating an Incoherence Argument Against the Trinity
In this section of the paper I answer an objection which intends to demonstrate that the Trinity is logically incoherent. I will present the argument from the anti-Trinitarian objector and then I will show that the argument that the Trinity is incoherent is unsound.
The arguments against Trinitarianism proceeds on propositions which the Trinitarian is committed to and then the anti-Trinitarian objector tries to derive a contradiction from the propositions to which Trinitarianism is committed to. I will outline the two ways in which the anti-Trinitarian objector attempts to draw out a contradiction from Trinitarian propositions. The incoherency argument is as follows:
1) There is one God
2) The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct
3) The Father is fully God
4) The Son is fully God
5) The Holy Spirit is fully God
6) The Father is the Son and The Spirit
6*) There are three Gods
6 and 6* are two ways in which the anti-Trinitarian objector can draw out a contradiction from 1-5. 6 would be deriving modalism from 1-5 which is inconsistent with Trinitarianism because Trinitarianism holds to the real personal distinctions in the God which is affirmed in 2. As for 6* this is deriving Tri-theism from 1-5 and this is inconsistent with Trinitarianism because the Trinitarian holds that there only exists one God as 1 indicates. In the next paragraph I will provide an argument against a crucial assumption that this anti-Trinitarian argument relies on and we will see later on that this assumption is false.
This anti-Trinitarian argument above assumes a principle which we will call principle P. Many philosophers hold to P for material objects and P is as follows: x and y are to be counted as one material object if and only if x and y are identical. P seems especially plausible with respect to material objects when x entirely fills the region R of a material object M and y fills the entire region R of a material object M. This is the assumption behind 6 and 6* which generates a contradiction with 1-5, but of course this is applied to immaterial objects in the case of the Trinity. But we will see that given a counter-example to P in the next paragraph that P is false.
The Aristotelian view of accidental sameness in material objects provides a counter-example to the anti-Trinitarian argument. Those holding to the Aristotelian view of matter which instantiates many hylomorphic compounds can give examples in which there is an object where there is numerical sameness without identity. Here is such an example: Let us suppose that there is a bronze statue of Zeus which is also a pillar for a building. The one holding to numerical sameness without identity will attempt to show that the pillar, the statue, and the bronze are not identical. Yet they all entirely fill a region R and we would count the pillar, the statue, and the bronze as one material object. The way one would show that the statue, the pillar, and the bronze are not identical is by pointing out that each of these kinds have different modal properties. There are things that are true of the statue that are not true of the pillar, namely, that the statue can endure even if it is no longer used to support any part of a building. But of course this is not true of the pillar because if it was not offering support of anything then it would no longer be a pillar. Also there is something true of the bronze that is not true of the statue, namely, that the bronze can be melted into an orb. But surely this is not true of the statue for if the bronze were melted down to an orb like form then it would no longer be a statue. So we have a counter-example to principle P where there exists one material object with three kinds all entirely filling a region of space R.
We can now see that the Aristotelian view of material constitution provides a counter-example to principle P employed in the anti-Trinitarian argument. The fact that there can be an x and y that entirely fills a region R that are not identical is a fact that can be dialectally effective in responding to the anti-Trinitarian objector. For instance, one could say that in created material things we see that in some sense there can be three kinds that can be fully in one material object and so given this assume it is reasonable to say that it is possible that there are three kinds of persons who are in some sense fully in one spiritual non-physical object. Given this dialectal strategy the burden of proof is on the anti-Trinitarian objector to demonstrate that it is incoherent to say that three kinds cannot be in some sense fully in a spiritual thing and that there is only one of these spiritual things. This is a very difficult burden to bear because it is hard to see how one can come up a knock down argument that demonstrates that it is incoherent to have numerical sameness without identity with spiritual objects while maintaining that it is possible to have numerical sameness without identity with material objects. Thus, for this reason the anti-Trinitarian argument from incoherence is unsound.
A Modified Immaterial Constitution view of the Trinity
In this section I provide a modified immaterial constitution model of the Trinity which is not identical to Michael Rea’s and Jeffrey E. Brower’s model, but it is very similar to it. I first will provide a general overview of my model of the Trinity. I will point out three desirable and positive aspects of my theory. Lastly, I will present three worries about my theory and I will respond to them.
My model of the Trinity is analogous to the matter and hylomorphic compounds in the Aristotelian view of how there can be numerical sameness without identity in a material object, but my model applies it to the one Divine spiritual object. The Divine nature would play the role of the matter in that it would fully constitute each of the members of the Trinity without the members of the Trinity being identical to one another. There would be only one Divine nature which would be the immaterial stuff which has the properties of metaphysical necessity and the property of essentially constituting three Divine persons. For x to be God on my model is that x has to fully consist of the Divine immatter (this is the word that I use to describe the none-physical stuff that plays the role of the matter in the Aristotelian view). Each of the persons of the Trinity is like a hylomorphic compound. Furthermore, each of the members of the Trinity fully consists of the Divine immatter. So it follows on my view that each of the persons of the Trinity is God and the Trinity as a whole is God. Yet, each of the persons is not identical to one another nor is any of the persons identical to the Divine nature. Given this view of immatter and hylomorphic compounds we can see that this model allows for a robust notion of the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity by virtue of the fact that they all share the same immatter of the Divine. On my model I hold that there is only one Divine individual and so my theory is compatible with thinking that there is an individuator in the Divine substance like a bare particular. But of course on my model one is free not to posit a bare particular if they thought it was incoherent or threatened the plurality of the persons.
A point of difference in my model to Rae and Brower’s model is that I wish to go in more detail about what sort of properties each of the persons have. I would hold that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each have one center of consciousness, cognitive faculties, and a divine will. Furthermore, I would say that each member of the Trinity has their own property of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, aseity and all the other essential Divine properties that we would think a Divine person has. So for instance, the Father has his own property of omniscience and the Son has his own property of omniscience. The members of the Trinity would be essentially distinguished by virtue of the unique essential necessary properties of eternal Fatherhood, Sonship, and Spiration. On my immaterial constitution view the Father alone would be eternally constituted of the divine immatter without any causation logically prior to eternally bringing about his personal constitution. The Son on the other hand would be constituted by the Divine immatter and this constitution is eternally caused by the Father from all eternity. The Spirit’s constitution would be eternally caused by the Father and the Son from all eternity. These are the common and unique properties that each of the personal hylomorphic compounds have in the Divine immatter.
I list the three benefits and virtues of this model of the Trinity. After I list each benefit I will expound in more detail why this is a benefit of my Trinitarian model.
1) It secures the oneness in essence and the plurality of the persons.
The benefit of a strong sense of oneness and the plurality of the persons is that it guards against the heresies of tri-theism and modalism. The most attractive feature of the immaterial constitution model is that it secures that there is one divine immatter and this feature entirely prevents any tri-theistic notions of three individuals or three substances. Furthermore, given how I have articulated my modified immaterial constitution view it would seem hard to charge my model as modalistic because each of the persons have their own distinctive center of consciousness, cognitive faculties, and a divine will. My model is superior to Rea’s and Brower’s in that I have defined each of the members of the Trinity to entirely prevent any sort of modalism which has been a worry about their view. In short, my model has all of the positive aspects of Latin and Social trinitarianism without any of the major worries of modalism or tri-theism.
2) Each of the persons has a robust sense of Deity
The way in which I define Deity is such that it allows each of the persons to be fully God. I would say x is God if and only if x fully consists of divine immatter. When I say that x fully consists of divine immatter I mean to say that 1) x comes into the relation of numerical sameness without identity with the divine immatter, 2) that x derives all its immaterial existence from the divine immatter and properties from the divine immatter. Each of the persons fully consists of divine immatter and so therefore each of the persons is fully God. On my view then each of the persons cannot be parts of God. The worry with saying that each of the persons are parts of God is that it seems to have not as a robust view of deity because the parts of God together add up together to equal the fully deity. In addition, the biblical data does seem to commit us to the notion that each of the persons is fully God. A good example of this is when Colossians 2:9 teaches of Jesus that he had the “whole fullness of deity”. Given these considerations then we ought to adopt the theory that makes us have each of the persons of the Trinity have the most robust sense of being divine. It seems to me that my theory satisfies that constraint and so this increases the attractiveness of my theory.
3) There is only one way to be Divine
One of the most attractive features of my model is that it allows one to say that there is only one way to be divine with respect to the Trinity and to each of the Divine persons. This feature is unique to Latin models of the Trinity or material constitution models of the Trinity. The benefits of saying that there is only one way to be divine is that one can affirm that both the Trinity jointly is Divine and that the each of the member are Divine in same sense while affirming monotheism. Furthermore, there does not seem to be much scriptural warrant for thinking that we can ascribe two sorts of Divinity to God. This is possible on my model because each of the persons fully consists of the divine immatter and yet the Trinity as whole fully consists of the Divine immatter. This is possible much like it is possible with material objects when you have the one bronze lump fully constituting the pillar and the statue of Zeus. In this example one would want to say that the one bronze lump fully constitutes Zeus and yet the bronze fully constitutes both Zeus and the pillar. So too in the Trinity one want to say on my model that the Divine immatter fully constitutes the Son and yet the Divine immatter fully constitutes the Trinity as whole. Therefore, my model provides a consistent and orthodox approach to having one way for a thing to be Divine.
I move to discuss three problems and worries with my model. In this section I will generally take two strategies by way of response: I will show that the objection does not have significant cost to abandon the model or that the objection has no cost at all.
1) Each of the persons of the Trinity is not identical to God
One could certainly critique my model by saying that my view entails the position that Jesus is not identical to God or that each of the Trinitarian members are not identical to God. Instead my view holds that Jesus is God by virtue of the fact that he fully consists of Divine immatter. This distinguishes my model from Rea’s and Brower’s model
Rea and Brower, 278.. Rea and Brower argue that each member is identical to the one spiritual object God and so in this way we can assert things like Jesus is identical to God. But I tend to think that such assertion is metaphysically impossible given classical Trinitarian commitments. For there is something true of the one spiritual object that is not true of Jesus, namely, that the Spiritual object has immatter and has three personal hylomorphic compounds. But the hylomorphic compound of Jesus does not have three personal hylomorphic compounds which it has or constitutes rather it is only the immatter which can be said to have or constitute three hylomorphic compounds. Given these consideration I do not see how one can hold that Jesus is identical God and yet hold to the Trinity and logical consistency. Since I do not think it is logically possible for one to hold consistently that Jesus is identical to God and the doctrine of the Trinity then I regard the costs of denying that Jesus is identical to God of no cost at all for my Trinitarian model.
2) The term “stuff” cannot be properly said of immaterial objects like God
A common objection to my model is that it does not make much sense to ascribe the terms like immaterial stuff, immatter, Divine spiritual stuff to non-physical things like God. The thought here is that these are terms that are only applied to material objects and so have no application to immaterial objects like God. After all terms like “fully” and “stuff” are terms of space and location which cannot properly be applied to God who is not extended in space. In response to these worries one can take the route of saying that these terms have analogical application to immaterial objects. And that this is hardly a worry because one could say that most if not all of predication of the divine is analogical. But if this is the worst case scenario then I do not think this cost out weights the general benefit of my model. However, I do not think one is necessarily reduced to this worst case scenario if one holds to my model. For one, it is not entirely clear to me that phrases like “stuff” and “fullness” cannot be applied to immaterial things. I can conceive of an immaterial thing apart from space that have this sort of primitive stuff aspect that is more than just properties which gives full form to immaterial kinds and in addition gives those kinds unity in one object. There does not seem to be anything clearly incoherent and logically contradictory with this notion of other things consisting of immatter and that immatter being the sort of thing that makes all those kinds it consists of numerically one object. Furthermore, I do not even see how this language presupposes shape and size either. But it must be honestly conceded that this notion of immatter and it fully constituting hylomorphic compounds is an irreducible and primitive with respect to non-physical objects such that it cannot be given further analysis. This is indeed a concession because any theory that adds primitives raises the theoretical price of that theory (one would like to have as little primitives as possible and explain as much as possible). But it seems like this cost is worth it because of the fact that my immaterial constitution theory allows one to hold to a robust notion of Divinity among the Divine persons and it has the advantage of there being one sense of Divinity while securing monotheism.
3) The use of “Divine Stuff” is untraditional
William Lane Craig argues that the material constitution view is untraditional in taking the one essence in the Trinity to be a sort of Divine immaterial stuff which constitutes all three of the persons. Craig argues that what the council of Nicea meant by homoousios that not that the Father and the Son were made out of the same spiritual stuff but rather that they “shared the same generic nature or being”. Even if were Craig were right about this and this model does seems inconsistent with the Nicean creed then this is still a price I will gladly pay. I think we should trump tradition when it is inconsistent with reason and scripture. But fortunately for those fans of tradition I do think that Craig is mistaken about this. I would say that the constitution view is consistent with the Father and the Son sharing the same being as this what Craig asserts what the council intended. For surely if the Father and the Son are constituted by the same necessary Divine immatter it would follow from this that they share the same being. So there is no inconsistency with the constitution view and the council of Nicea. What Craig needs is to show evidence that the majority of those formulating the document held that homoousios was incompatible with the constitutional view. And Craig has simply not done this. So this objection has no cost at all, but even if I were wrong in my assessment it still seems that the cost is very small given the three major benefits of the theory that I have outlined above.
In this paper I have argued that there are good reasons for thinking that the Trinity is true and that all of the charges of irrationality and incoherence are unfounded. I have done this by arguing for the Trinity on the basis of the highest conception of love and from God being the greatest possible being. Furthermore, I have argued that the anti-Trinitarian arguments from incoherence are dubious. And lastly I have provided and defended a rational model of the Trinity. For these reasons the Christian can boldly believe that there is one God who is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Angelici, Ruben. Richard of Saint Victor On the Trinity: English Translation and Commentary. Eugene, Or.: Cascade Books, 2011.
Brower, Jeffrey, Rea, Michael C. “Material Constitution and the Trinity,” Faith and Philosophy, 22 (2005): 487-505.
Craig, William Lane. 2005. “Does the Problem of Material Constitution Illuminate the Doctrine
of the Trinity?” Faith and Philosophy 22: 77 - 86.
Flint, Thomas P., and Michael Rea, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2009.
Howard-Snyder, Daniel. 2003. “Trinity Monotheism” Philosophia Christi 5: 375 – 403.
Leftow, B., 1999, “Anti Social Trinitarianism”, in The Trinity : An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, S. T. Davis, D. Kendall and G. O'Collins (eds.), New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 203–49.
Pruss, Alexander, McCall, Thomas, and Michael Rea, eds. Philosophical and Theological Essays On the Trinity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010.
Swinbourne, Richard. The Christian God. Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 1994.