A simple being containing multiple distinct “persons” – D’oh!
Theologian Lewis Ayres is the author of this worthy book. In it, he hammers the point that the Latin vs. Social trinitarian categories aren’t helpful in understanding post-Constantinople trinitarian theology. I think he’s right about that, though I persist in using the terminology because it is helpful for 20th and 21st century theories. Ayres’s book is a wonderful piece of patristic scholarship, but it is also an extended polemic against social trinitarians. Basically, he thinks that what he aptly calls the pro-Nicene tradition has gotten short shrift in recent theological work on the Trinity, and he very helpfully presents the core of that tradition and bats down a great many mis-readings of it. Obviously, he’s sympathetic to this sort of trinity theory, to put it mildly. This will definitely come up when I discuss social theories.
Here I just wanted to pass on a striking quote, which to me spotlights a central problem that many people have with the mainstream classic Latin or Pro-Nicene tradition. To see the problem, you have to remember that people in this tradition, seemingly for Platonic reasons, always assume the doctrine of divine simplicity, which says that God lacks any parts, components, ingredients, or differing properties. In the context, Ayres is discussing the Pro-Nicene mindset common to Augustine, the Cappadocians, and others.
[According to the Pro-Nicenes] divine persons are irreducible within the irreducible [divine] essence. …The distinctions between them are real: but we do not know what it is to exist distinctly in this state. Hence statements of the general form Father is not Son, Son is not Father, and Spirit is neither Father nor Son are some of the clearest we can make precisely in that they deliver only a logic of relationship. …while pro-Nicenes do not talk about the divine persons by offering detailed accounts of the ontology of personhood, they do use the [analogies] of human mind and reason to illuminate both our speech about the unity of God and about what it is to be a person within that unity. …In his Catechetical Oration, for example, Gregory of Nyssa… insists that the Son must possess life… [but] does not participate in life, but is [his] own life and hence must possess will and be both wise and omnipotent. Because the very term ‘Word’ signifies relation to the Father Word and Father must be distinct. But while such passages appear to give further density to the idea of a divine person it is important to note that, for example, when rationality or a capacity for willing is attributed to the Son, it is the unitary divine will that is spoken of: within the simple Godhead, the distinct Word possesses the fullness of the indivisible Godhead. (295-6, emphasis added)
Actually – there are two central problems there: multiple real “persons” within a simple God (even multiple somethings-or-other are inconsistent with the doctrine of divine simplicity), and persistent unclarity about what talk of “persons” in God amounts to.