Mysterians at work in Dallas

confused kid

Clearly, the instructor’s work has been accomplished.

What I call positive mysterianism about the Trinity is the view that the doctrine, as best we can formulate it, is apparently contradictory.  Now many Christian philosophers resort to this in the end, but only after one or more elaborate attempts to spell the doctrine out in a coherent way. On the other hand, some jump more quickly for the claim, not really expanding on or interpreting the standard creedal formulas much at all. These are primarily who I have in mind when I use the label “positive mysterian”.

I ran across a striking version of this recently, in a blog post by theologian C. Michael Patton, who blogs at Parchment and Pen: a theology blog. In his interesting post, he says that all the typical analogies for the Trinity (shamrock, egg, water-ice-vapor, etc.) are useful only for showing what the Trinity doctrine is not.

This contrasts interestingly with what I call negative mysterians. Typically, and this holds for many of the Fathers, as well as for people like Brower and Rea nowadays, they hold that all these analogies are useful, at least when you pile together enough of them, for showing what the doctrine is. Individually, they are highly misleading, and only barely appropriate, but they seem to think that multiplying analogies like these results in our  achieving a minimal grasp of what is being claimed. Maybe they think the seeming inconsistency of the analogies sort of cancels out the misleading implications of each one considered alone.

In any case, in Patten’s view, the best you can do is to recite the creedal formulas, realize that they are seemingly contradictory (interestingly, he never says how), and then just live with the discomfort. I’m not sure that I understand what he thinks the doctrine is, but if  I had to guess, I’d guess it is the (plainly contradictory and so plainly false) claim that each of the three is numerically identical to God, but none of them is numerically identical to either of the other two.

It struck me that it takes a lot of chutzpah to urge people to believe something like this; shouldn’t the apparent inconsistency make us at least a little afraid that we’re just foisting a theoretical failure on people, so that we don’t tell them that for any coherent version of the doctrine they might ever come up with, it’s wrong? Moreover confusion hurts (mentally), and can and does lead people to abandon Christian belief. Are we then sure it is necessary, and that we want to foster it in people?

I guess he’s just really, really (1) sure that the Bible is inspired, and (2) sure that the Bible really says what I guess above – or whatever apparent contradictions he’d commit to. I understand this view completely, but in the end I don’t think it is reasonable, specifically, the (2) part. (This needs arguing for, but I’ll save that for the book.) Of course, if (2) were reasonable, this would constitute prima facie evidence against (1)!

Here are the remarks that so struck me, which conclude Patton’s post:

It is always best to remember that the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Son is God, but they are not each other.

One more thing. I often tell my students that if they say, “I get it!” or “Now I understand!” that they are more than likely celebrating the fact that they are a heretic! When you understand the biblical principles and let the tensions remain without rebuttal, then you are orthodox. When you solve the tension, you have most certainly entered into one of the errors that we seek to avoid.

Confused? Good! That is just where you need to be.

Apparently, analogy-eschewing is popular at Dallas Theological Seminary. Patton’s colleague Dr. Michael J. Svigel, expert on early church history, makes the same claim. He quotes Irenaues insisting that no one but the Father and Son understand the latter’s eternal generation by the former. Of course, Irenaeus was an enthusiastic user of analogies for the Trinity. It sounds to me like Svigel is, like the Fathers he specializes in, more a negative than a positive mysterian (one can be both).

I don’t know about you, but I like the fact that Christians believe in a God who is utterly indescribable, incomprehensible, and unillustratable. Think about it: would you really want to worship and serve a God whose very essence can be accurately described by an egg, a pretzel, or a tube of toothpaste?

What catches my attention there is the “utterly”. Really? Slap me and call me an unsophisticated rube, but I thought the Bible was full of correct descriptions of God, even of some of his essential features. (e.g. knowing all) If I had to guess, I’d say that this is hyperbolic rhetoric on his part – that he doesn’t really think that God is utterly indescribable by human beings. I could be wrong, though.

In any even, in contrast to those early Fathers, Svigel ends his post by disavowing the use of analogies, in much the same way as Patton.

Let’s teach the doctrine of the Trinity accurately. That means dropping all illustrations of the Trinity from your teaching, because every illustration only distorts the unillustratable God.

This is interesting; a hard-core catholic traditionalist could accuse both of departing from the tradition, which has long used various analogies, with the standard caveat that one should take care not to be mislead by any one of them, and taking care to multiply and diversify them. (I don’t make this accusation myself; I’m just interested in how these mysterian defenses are supposed to work.)

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

10 Responses to Mysterians at work in Dallas

  1. Dale,

    As a representative of “positive mysterianism” discussed in your fine SEP article, I’m now wondering, do you count me among those who “jump more quickly for the claim, not really expanding on or interpreting the standard creedal formulas much at all”? I think my book spends quite a few pages interpreting the standard creedal formulas; after all, that’s an integral part of my overall case.

    What’s more, I agree with those who think that the analogies are collectively useful, even if individually misleading. (After all, I lean heavily on the doctrine of analogy, right?)

    Perhaps your categorization scheme needs a little Chisholming. :)

    Patton’s viewpoint strikes me as more like the “semantic minimalist” approach that I consider (and reject) in my book.

    It seems a wee bit odd that according to your analysis above, positive mysterians end up as more representative of negative theology than the negative mysterians!

  2. Dale says:

    Hi James,

    Re: “jumping quickly” – I had in mind the distinction between your typical evangelical philosopher, who tries to defend some of what I call “rational reconstructions” of “the” doctrine, and people like you, who eschew all such. It’s not a matter of speed, but on the other hand, you don’t want to tie yourself to any specific reading of those creedal claims – you’re very cagey about precisely what the apparent contradictions are. With both you and they, I’ve had to read hard to figure out what those are supposed to be.

    Is Patton not a mysterian, but rather a minimalist – or an adherent of what I’ve called, the way of Restraint? Possibly. It’s clear that he’s not for what I call Resolution or Redirection. You could be right. This part of his post tips me slightly towards the Positive Mysterian reading:

    “Christians believe in one God, i.e., one essence, who eternally exists in three separate persons, all of whom are equal.”

    This *seems* to suppose that the three are, and are not one person, one “who”.

    I don’t follow your last remark: “positive mysterians end up as more representative of negative theology than the negative mysterians!” I’m not sure you lean on the doctrine of analogy the way they (Neg Myst people) do…

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  4. Marg says:

    I’ve been reading old posts, Dale, and this seems like the place for a contradiction that tri-unists use regularly. God is not a “Person,” they say.

    That means there cannot be three persons in 2 Co. 13:15. There can only be TWO persons (at the most), and God, who is NOT a person.

    I have to agree with whoever said that trying to understand the doctrine of tri-unity is likely to drive a “person” mad.

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