“And the best thing is, we can take these blocks apart!”
In the last post, I introduced the ‘generic view’ of the trinity, namely the claim that Divinity (that which makes the divine persons God/divine) is shared equally by all three persons and so does not belong to any one divine person more than another. In this post, I would like to highlight some of the issues faced by a generic view.
My point of departure is modern day criticism of the generic view such as that of Colin Gunton and John Zizioulas (to name just a few). These authors are not, in my opinion, the most philosophically astute critics, but nevertheless, they do highlight some of the issues relevant for the generic view.
Before I launch into this, I need to make one point clear. In the last post, I described the Cappadocians as representatives of the generic view, but Gunton and Zizioulas (probably inaccurately) think the Cappadocians hold a derivation view, not a generic view. Gunton and Zizioulas thus direct their criticisms against Augustine, not the Cappadocians. But nevertheless, I will treat their criticisms as applying to the generic view in general.
With that out of the way, let’s begin by restating the key tenet for the generic view:
(GV) Divinity belongs equally to each divine person.
Theologians like Gunton and Zizioulas seem convinced that GV entails that Divinity is ‘prior’ or ‘ontologically primary’ to the divine persons. It’s hard to know just what they mean by that, but I take it that the idea goes something like this: Divinity is like a building block for the persons in the way that a brick is for a wall. Divinity can exist apart from the persons (but not vice versa), just like how a brick can exist apart from its wall (but not vice versa). Gunton and Zizioulas move very hastily to that conclusion, so I would like to unpack some of the assumptions that (seem to) get them there.
First then, Gunton and Zizioulas assume GV entails that Divinity is a fourth entity, different from the three persons. That is:
(T4) For any divine person x, Divinity is not identical to x.
That much seems fair enough. Certain things (like being shareable) apply to Divinity but not to a divine person, so it’s at least plausible to think that Divinity is not strictly identical to any divine person.
Second, Gunton and Zizioulas seem to assume further that if Divinity is a fourth entity, distinct from the persons, then it’s a concrete individual in its own right:
(T5) Divinity is a concrete individual.
T5 may or may not follow from T4, depending on whether one links the conditions for non-identity with the conditions for individuality.
Still, suppose we granted T5. In itself, T5 isn’t necessarily a problem. Most scholastic theologians, for example, maintained T5, and many patristic authors probably did too (like Tertullian, the Cappadocians, Augustine, etc.).
Third, Gunton and Zizioulas assume T5 entails that Divinity is capable of existing independently of the divine persons:
(T6) For any divine person x, Divinity could exist if x did not.
Again, T6 may or may not follow from T5, depending on whether one thinks the conditions for individuality correspond to the conditions for (the capability of) separate existence.
Nevertheless, it is from T6 that Gunton and Zizioulas infer their conclusion: if Divinity can exist on its own, then it must be a kind of fundamental building block for the divine persons in the way a brick is for a wall. That seems to be the sense of saying Divinity is ‘prior’ or ‘ontologically primary’ to the persons.
Now, why exactly is this such a problem? It seems to me that Gunton and Zizioulas have at least two worries relevant to our discussion. First, all the really good stuff about being God (e.g., the divine attributes) belongs to Divinity, and so if Divinity is a concrete individual which can exist on its own apart from the divine persons, then the persons turn out to be superfluous. The persons end up being secondary to Divinity.
Second, for Gunton and Zizioulas, God is fundamentally ‘personal’. That means, I take it, that some x and y can only be divine/God if they stand in a mutual loving relationship. But if Divinity can exist on its own, apart from the persons, then Divinity would be divine/God in virtue of its intrinsic properties only, without a need for any mutual loving relationships at all.
Consequently, Gunton and Zizioulas deny T6. As they see it, Divinity cannot exist on its own, apart from the persons. It is the persons who are divine/God, not some entity called Divinity (which is not itself a person). And with that, Gunton and Zizioulas reject the generic view altogether, opting instead for a derivation view. For them, Divinity just is the Father, so there is no ‘Divinity’ that is not a person.
Unfortunately, Gunton and Zizioulas seem to me mistaken about T6. The major advocates of the generic view are theologians like the Cappadocians, Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, etc. For all these people, T6 is a metaphysical impossibility. Divinity simply cannot exist apart from the divine persons.
Take Gregory of Nyssa as an example. Although there is debate about his theory of universals, one plausible interpretation is that Gregory thinks Divinity is an immanent universal, and so Divinity, like any other immanent universal, simply cannot exist apart from the things/persons that exemplify it. Similar points could be made about Augustine, Aquinas, and so forth. GV does not necessarily entail T6.
It seems to me that a more powerful objection to the generic view is this: if divine properties belong (strictly speaking) to Divinity, then divine properties will not belong to the persons unless we can tell a metaphysical story that successfully explains how the persons ‘inherit’ Divinity’s properties. And that’s a difficult metaphysical story to tell. (The derivation view faces the same problem, but only for the Son and Spirit since the Father is identical to Divinity.)