In Part 1 I explained how vague it is to say that there are three divine Persons “in” God. In Part 2, I described some different things one might mean by “Persons”. In this third part, I’ll explain some of many things it might mean to say that the three persons are one “substance” (Greek: ousia, Latin: substantia). But before I do that, it is important to reiterate what the point of all this is?
Am I making fun of the doctrine? Far from it! Am I trying to confuse? Heaven forbid! To the contrary, I’m pointing out that there are many ways to interpret these words (“in”, “substance”, “person”) precisely because various people actually do interpret them in exactly these different ways. Which ways are the right ways? Well, slow down. It’s going to take some time to simply see what the options are. That’s the first step?
Again, the point is that while there is widespread agreement about trinitarian words and formulae, there is no such widely shared understanding of those words – the agreement is more verbal than intellectual. There are, of course, various camps, various schools of thought, each of which thinks it is correct, or mostly correct.
What does it mean, then, to say that God is three Persons in one substance? If Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one substance, what does that mean, and what does it exclude from being the case?
For simplicity, let’s focus on the Father and e Son. Since the Council of Nicea in 325, it has been standard to say that the Father and Son are “one substance” (Greek: homoousias). Even then, many recognized that this could mean many things; they fought over the meaning of that term for decades after. Today, philosophers have pretty clearly distinguished at least the following options, as each is associated with a philosophical theory. Keep in mind that for each of the following, some philosophers have denied that any things are related that way, much less, the persons of the Trinity.
- The Father and Son are one entity, i.e. they are numerically identical in the way that Elvis and The King are identical, or the way that “W” and George W. Bush, or the way that you and yourself are.
- The Father and Son share one individual essence of divinity. (An individual essence is a property that in principle could be had by at most one entity, one thing which is self-identical in the sense of 1 above.) Laura Bush, and W’s wife share a single essence of humanity.
- The Father and Son share one universal essence of divinity. (A universal essence is a defining property that could in principle be had by more than one entity.) You and I, and Bush and Al Gore all share the unversal property of humanity – it is “in” each of us.
- The Father and Son function and act in such a unified way, that it is natural for us to think of them as one entity in the sense of 1.
- The Father and Son are composed of the same kind of stuff (whatever divinities are composed of), just as this ice cube and that ice cube are composed of the same sort of stuff (H2O).
- The Father and Son are composed of the same quantity of stuff.
- The stuff the Son is composed of used to belong to the Father. That is, the quantity of stuff which used to compose the Father alone, is now such that part of it still constitutes the Father, and some of it now constitutes the Son. Compare: the quantity of snow which once formed only the snowman’s torso – now that I’ve scooped off a snowball’s worth, part of it still constitutes the snowman’s torso, but now part it consistutes my new snowball.
- The Father and Son are “relatively identical” – they are the same being but not the same person.
Whew! Those are the main options. I didn’t give everyday examples for 6 and 8, as it takes a lot of explaining for most people to see what 6 and 8 mean. I’ll explain them in future postings, when I discuss philosophers holding the sorts of trinitarian theories that employ those concepts.
To finish, I’ll go down the list, comment briefly, and say why each options looks problematic. I’m not offering fatal objections here, but only pointing out that each interpretation has obstacles to overcome. (Their proponents are aware of these, and have, in most cases, interesting replies.)
- Doh! Modalism. Many pew-sitters, I think, hold this view. Evangelical apologists seem to lean towards it as well. Some supporters of the homoousias in the Nicene Creed seem to have held this view, which generated some of the opposition to it.
- If things are “the same substance” in this sense, doesn’t it also follow that they’re the same in the sense of 1? My impression is that many theologians, especially those trained in Western theology, understand the doctrine in this second sense, though they often don’t clearly distinguish it from both 1 and 3 (etc.).
- This is to say that there are two divinities. This guarantees essential equality between them. But isn’t this bitheism (tritheism, once we add in the Holy Spirit)? If it is, are all forms of non-monotheism unacceptable, or ought trinitarianism be understood as a specific kind of non-monotheism?
- Things which are “one” in this way are, presumably, not one in any of the above senses. Again, is this consistent with monotheism? Mustn’t a doctrine of the trinity be monotheistic?
- Are divine Persons composed of anything at all? Is there such that as immaterial stuff? Or are only physical things composed of stuff? Or can we say that only physical objects are literally made of stuff, but that there’s something analogous to stuff for immaterial beings?
- Same questions as number 5. Also, does it follow that they cannot be qualitatively different? e.g. the Son is worried about his being crucified, but the Father is not worried about the Son’s being crucified. This theory has long had its defenders.
- This is what many of the early opponents of the Nicene Creed feared was meant. It would be one way to think about the Son’s “being generated by” the Father. It may have had a few defenders in the fourth century, but has never been popular. If we take it seriously, we’ll ask the questions listed at 5 above.
- This view was (arguably) never held until the 1960′s! Most people have no concept of “relative identity” (as opposed to numerical identity, sometimes called “absolute” identity, explained at 1 in the first list above). Most philosophers who do understand the concept, deny that there’s any such thing as relative identity! Still, a several very respected recent philosphers have defended this, as applied to the Trinity, and/or other things. To even put this option on the table, will require a longish posting devoted to it.
Q: If you had to choose one of the above ways of interpreting the Nicene claim that Father and Son are homoousias, which would you pick, and why?
Q: For the philosophers & theologians out there: have I left out any options? If so, please explain what they are.