Like about everything else these days.
In this post I want to explore what to me is the oddest and hardest part to grasp of the constitution trinitarianism. When I first read their paper, I thought they thought God was a stuff – that is, that the term “God” referred to a certain thing, that immaterial stuff they call “the divine essence”. That was wrong on two counts. For as we’ve seen, “the divine essence” isn’t supposed to be a thing (although they think it wouldn’t be a catastrophe if they admitted it was a thing – see their footnote 10). Hence, it can’t be a thing which is identical to God. Second, they don’t think that “God”, say, when used in a Psalm, refers to that stuff. So, what do they think it refers to? It depends. They hold that it’s a systematically ambiguous term. Why is that?
They say it because the logic of their position forces them to. Consider our old pals Lumpy and Ned. Suppose you point at that old garden gnome and say, “That eyesore was made in China.” We look at the bottom of the gnome, and sure enough, we see “Made in China.” Is what we said true or false? It depends! They hold that the term “That eyesore” is ambiguous. (Forget for a moment that we assume that there are statue, but not clay lump factories; suppose there are clay lump factories, and that they’re darned proud of their work, and frequently stamp the lumps with the name of their country, and that these stamps sometimes survive the lump’s being made into a statue.) Yes, there’s (numerically) one material object there, but there are two non-identical hylomorphic compounds, Ned and Lumpy. Maybe Ned was made in China, but Lumpy was pulled out of the ground in Bombay, India. So we can understand what you’re saying, and whether it’s true or false, only if there’s something about the context of the conversation which disambiguates the term “That eyesore”. (For their compressed consideration of this point, see their p. 66.) Maybe you were discussing the world clay industry. Or maybe you were comparing the origins of various lawn statues you own. Here, the statement would be false, and true, respectively. But if we just walked up and pointed, saying “That eyesore was made in China”, that statement would be too ambiguous to be understood.
Now switch to the Trinity. The term “God”, or “the one God” may according to Brower and Rea refer to any of three non-identical hylomorphic compounds, the three divine persons. If it used in a context insufficient to disambiguate the term, then an ambiguous sentence results, one which doesn’t clearly communicate any one thought. In the New Testament, this doesn’t seem to be a problem, at least in most instances, e.g. “God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son…” or “Greetings in the name of God, [that is,] the Father, and his Son”. Nearly always in the New Testament, it’s clear from either the immediate context or from the way the particular author uses terms, that by “God”, the Father of Jesus is meant. And in a few places, “God” refers to the Son of God. Great, now switch to the Old Testament. “Moses was a friend of God.” Of whom? “David was a man after God’s own heart.” Whose? There’s no way to say! Looks like an incompetent use of language. In an era where it is totally unknown that there are three divine persons constituted by one immaterial stuff, it seems that nothing about the context could ever serve to disambiguate the reference.
Here’s an analogy that’s better than the “Made in China” one: suppose someone who knows only the barest facts about me starts making assertions about “Dale’s kid”, such as “Dale’s kid looks just like him”, “Dale’s kid likes to sing”, and “Dale’s kid has an evil giggle”. “Dale’s kid” is, it turns out, ambiguous – I have three offspring. This being unknown to the asserter, she’s incompetently using language. Her assertions are neither true nor false as they stand; in a sense, she isn’t successfully asserting anything at all.
I can imagine how for some Old Testament usages of “Yahweh”, “Adonai”, and so on, there could be something about the context which disambiguates. Take a prophecy about YHWH’s suffering servant in Isaiah. Why is this suffering servant, the messiah a servant of? Presumably the Father. So maybe there, the God-terms refer to the Father. The problem is, in the vast majority of cases, there’s nothing to disambiguate – whether we consider the original, intended meaning, or the meaning we should assign to the texts now (if that’s different than the original). Take the famous “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” Who made them? No way to say. Remember, it can’t be the divine essence, as that’s a mere stuff and stuffs can’t create. Nor can it be “the Trinity as a whole”, as there’s no such self-identical thing, there’s no such personal being.
To me, this is a major downside of their theory, one which is sort of slid past in their piece. I’d like to say that David, Moses and the rest were competent to go around saying lots of true things about God, things which they knew, things like the contents of Psalm 23 or 103, for instance. Unitarians of all kinds and more traditional trinitarians can say this. The Unitarians say, what Moses and David knew about was the Father; Yahweh just is the Father, those are co-referring terms. Traditional trinitarians say that OT characters knew a lot about God, but only in the NT era (or a little later) did they find out that God – the same thing they’d been talking about all along – was tripersonal, or had three “persons” within him.
The best spin I can imagine them putting on this consequence of their theory is something like: Well, the persons of the Trinity are all divine. They’re so alike, that the ambiguities don’t matter. “God is kind and merciful, all-knowing, and everlasting.” That would be true no matter which of the three “God” referred to. In reply, I don’t see how those counterfactual circumstances (wherein one does unambiguously refer) are relevant. It still stands that as a matter of fact, in a sense nothing has been asserted, nothing that can be true or false!
Or maybe they’ll say: ambiguity doesn’t matter when the three things to which the term can refer are all “to be counted as one”. But, plainly it does – as they point out, it’s a difference between truth and falsity. In other words, if the term were to refer to one of the three, the resulting statement would be true, while if it were to refer to another, it’d be false.
Readers, what do you think. Is this a serious objection? If so, do they have a better way around it?