In this last post in this series, I want to put out a few critical reactions to Baber’s “Neo-Sabellian” Trinity theory.
My thanks to Harriet for this piece and for her interaction with us here.
No doubt, she’ll argue back; and she will probably say something about how her views have changed since she wrote this piece.
So, in no particular order:
- I agree with her that it’s suspicious if some philosophical theory should appeal to us only or mainly because it’ll help us in theology. I also agree with her that it’s interesting to at least try to come up with what is in some sense an acceptable Trinity theory which uses only metaphysical doctrines we have other reasons to believe.
- Again, I think it is a good aim to produce an intelligible (seemingly consistent) Trinity theory, assuming some such theory is called for. I think she’s correct to complain about the severe obscurity of traditional claims about “eternal generation” and “procession”.
- Picky point: I think “Neo-Sabellian” is a misnomer. It’s “Neo” all right, but it isn’t clearly Sabellian. It seems, and here I’m assume the standard view about what is historically murky, Sabellius’s concern was to preserve the uniqueness of the God, as one divine person. He then, it is thought, reduced or as it were demoted each “person” of the Trinity to being a way that this one God acts or appears for a certain period of time. In contrast, Baber’s “persons” are not mere modes or appearances of the one divine substance/thing. Rather, they are things and persons in their own right (given four-dimensionalist views of such things), and are God’s (temporal) parts. Perhaps a better name would be a four-dimensionalist Trinity theory? She tries to secure monotheism not by minimizing the status of the persons, but rather by the doctrine of “tensed identity”. Think that as I define “modalism,” this theory isn’t modalist about any of the Persons of the Trinity. But that’s just terminological issue.
- But this brings me to a more serious point. As someone who dabbles in the black arts of metaphysics himself, for perfectly non-theological reasons, I don’t think that four-dimensionalism about physical objects is true, or could even possibly be true, about God or anything else. I don’t believe there are any such things as temporal parts or “tensed identity” relations. And I’m firmly convinced that idenity is what matters to survival – as convinced as I am about anything in philosophy. Also, that psychological similarity or sameness is not enough to guarantee that some future person will be the continuation of me. I know that Baber and others, indeed, some of the top people in the field disagree with me about all this. But as best I can tell, the “philosophical cost” of her proposal is high indeed, even though it bring in only theories which enjoy non-theological motivations, for some theorists.
- How is this consistent with her insistence that Christianity ought not be thought committed to “any large-scale metaphysical system or to any philosophical doctrines”? The doctrine of temporal parts seems pretty large scale to me…
- Another, related problem: people not trained in philosophy simply can’t understand this theory, at least without great difficulty. But then, can it be required of them that they should believe this? I thought a Trinity doctrine was supposed to be a required one.
- Is this supposed to be the doctrine propounded, e.g. in the 4th or 14th centuries? Surely, it cannot be; the theory of temporal parts was unknown in those times.
- I can’t see how monotheism has been upheld here. There’s one everlasting god, but this god is in her view composed of other at least three other gods, which are the first god’s temporal parts. Each of these four is a god, and none of them is identical to any of the other three. Thus, I count (at least) four gods on her theory. She would reply that I ought to count them all as one god, but I just don’t see any reason for that policy. Maybe I’m missing something here; perhaps I really don’t understand what “tensed identity” is supposed to be.
- She agrees that “an aggregate of persons is not a person”. I don’t know if she means by “person” human or self. I think it is true either way. But if it is true about selves, and a divine person just is a certain self, then it’ll be true for divine persons as well, which is to say, for gods. In other words, it seems that an aggregate of gods isn’t itself a god. If she grants our intuitions about cats and humans, and even about generic selves (persons), then does she not grant that a core claim of this theory seems false?
- The account founders on the personal relationship during his earthly life between Jesus and the Father. Saying that “Father” in that context refers to God doesn’t help. Try to envision this: circa 25 CE, there’s a thing (God) being friends with his own temporal part (the Son). But the Son is all there is to God at that time. For the whole span of Jesus’ life, there is no divine “other” for Jesus to love, obey, pray to, and so on. But this, this theory just isn’t consistent with a central theme of the New Testament.
- According to the New Testament, at some times, the Father and Son differ, in what she would call their basic properties (properties had because of how things are at that time). But if so, they are distinct, and it can’t be that the Son is all there is to the Father (the Trinity) at that time when they differ. E.g. At some time circa 33 CE the Father wanted Jesus to be crucified, and Jesus didn’t want Jesus to be crucified.
For these reasons, I think Baber’s effort at rational reconstruction of trinitarianism is a swing and a miss. I you love the theory of temporal parts, you may be more sympathetic, but I still think some of the other points above would present serious difficulties.
What say you, dear readers?