A rather obvious and potentially serious objection to Leftow’s theory is that it makes the doctrine of the Trinity out to be modalism, for plainly, in his view, each of the Persons is a mode of God – a way God is, within a certain strand of his life. Leftow is very aware of this objection, and what he does in replying to it is instructive.
But before we turn to that, we should be a little more precise – in what sense, for Leftow, are the divine Persons “modes” of God? Each person is identified with a “complete” life God leads – with one of the three “strands” in God’s life. This is to say that these “persons” just are certain events, events the component substance/subject of which is God himself. Leftow doesn’t stress this point, and sort of smoothes it over by saying that each person “just is” God (i.e. that person-event just is God eternally having an intrinsic property). (e.g. 314) I’m assuming here that an event is just a substance/entity having a property/feature at a time (or timelessly).
Leftow essentially says (my paraphrase follows): “What is ‘modalism’? Let’s consult some standard theological reference works. As these theologians define the term my theory doesn’t amount to ‘modalism’ at all.” (326-8)
There’s something eminently reasonable about this strategy – surely we philosophers can rely on our colleagues in theology to have properly thought through the issue of modalism, and properly diagnosed what is wrong with it – why it should be considered unorthodox. Well, I wish it were so. The fact is, theological sources are less than precise on this issue – through their lack of precision, they’ve let us down. Just look at the ones Leftow quotes. (327)
…standard theological dictionaries… describe Modalism as holding that all distinctions between Persons are impermanent and transitory, or “are a mere succession of modes or operations,” that “the one God becomes Trinitarian only in respect of the modes of His operation ad extra,” that “God is three only with respect to the modes of His action in the world,” that “the one God… has three manners (modes) of appearance, rather than being one God in three Persons.” [And] that for Modalism, “the three Persons are assigned the status of modes or manifestations of the one divine being; the one God is substantial, the there differentiations adjectival… the Modalist God metamorphosed Himself to meet the changing needs of the world,” and so there is “a Trinity of manifestation, not even a Trinity of economy, still less a Trinity of being.”
Note that the word “modalism” here is just a label for a certain heresy – the content of that problematic doctrine seems to slide around between the sources. Is the dastardly doctrine that God is only Three qua related to creatures (so that if there were no creatures, He wouldn’t be Three?) (first two quotations) Or is it that God’s Threeness is only an appearance, and not an intrinsic feature? (third quotation) Or is the problem that the Persons are made modes of a substance and so robbed of substantival status themselves? (quotation four) Or is the problem that “modalism” implies that God changes (by adopting these three modes one after the other), whereas we must hold that God doesn’t change? (quotation four) Or does “modalism” make the Persons mere appearances, and not even so much as ways that God acts? (quotation five)
By instead using the term “modalism” as a descriptive label for views about one or more of the Persons, we can throw some light on the situation. It seems that what the theologians above are talking about is what I call sequential, phenomenal, non-essential FSH modalism. That is, each of the Three Persons is identical to different mode of God, but these modes succeed each other in time, and none is essential to God’s nature, and moreover each is an appearance, a way that God appears to something (someone) else, and isn’t an intrinsic property of God or an event in God that involves his having some intrinsic property. In other words, if you had a lot of knowledge of these successive Persons, you wouldn’t thereby know anything substantial about how God really is, or about God’s essential nature.
Leftow well understands what the theologians are rejecting. Hence, he says of his own theory,
Nothing in my account of the Trinity precludes saying that the Persons’ distinction is an eternal, necessary, non-successive and intrinsic feature of God’s life, one which would be there even if there were no creatures. (327)
That seems correct, which is to say that Leftow’s theory doesn’t amount to the above kind of modalism, but rather, to non-sequential, noumenal, essential FSH modalism. Unfortunately, that implies S-modalism, and I’ve argued here and here that S-modalism and any theory which implies it should be rejected by people who think the New Testament is accurate. Leftow, I take it, is one of those people. Hearing the footsteps of these sorts of objections, he briefly tries to head them off, in the following highly compressed passage.
The question is sure to come, though: aren’t your Persons still “modes,” if not modes of appearance, “adjectival” rather than “substantival”? One reply is that one the present account, each Person is as substantial as the one God is, since each Person is God in a different “part” of His life. If an infant isn’t a mode of a substance, neither is a Son. Again, arguably a person could be a substance despite having identity-conditions that depend on events… (328)
I’m not sure I understand this reply. God is the substance which lives. The three “persons”, on Leftow’s account, just are certain events – God’s living in certain ways. It doesn’t follow, then, that such “persons” are as substantival as God is – they aren’t substantival at all! Is “an infant” a mode of a substance? No – presumably an infant is identical to (just is) a substance. The event of Al being an infant would be a mode of Al – just as, on Leftow’s account, the event of God’s eternally living “sonishly” (my term) is a mode of God – and this mode, this life-event I called God’s living sonishly – this just is the Son, on his theory.
Leftow goes on to suggest that substances may “supervene” on certain events – that is, necessarily, whenever events of type X,Y,Z occur, a substance of type S exists. So maybe the Father, Son, and Spirit are real substances because of certain events within God’s life (or his multiple “life-streams”). Well, maybe. I thought Leftow was identifying the Persons with those life-events, not saying that the Persons supervene on them. In any case, I don’t think Leftow wants to say that they are substances at all; if he does, his account will include four divine substances: God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – which would take him pretty far outside the Latin tradition of trinitarian theorizing. I suppose his point is rather that the three Persons are… something like quasi-substances – substantial enough to avoid modalism, but not substances in the primary sense of the term. He admits at the end that he hasn’t addressed the issue of “what sorts of persons [the three divine] Persons are”. Well, to his great credit, he’s said more about the Persons than many Latin trinitarians have. He has said that they’re certain events, with God as their component substance. Hence, whatever else they are, they’re modes of God – ways God is. So as best I can tell, however the account is developed, it’ll still face the previously-noted problems for S-modalism. To get around those, he’d have to show, among other things, that it makes sense to think of these event-persons having personal relationships with each other, and with human beings.