Theistic Notebook

March 15, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion, Ch. 3

Intro to the Philosophy of Religion Intro
After carving out the theistic concept of God, Murray and Rea turn their attention to the Christian concept of God as triune and incarnate. Can these claims be established apart from appeal to scripture?  Both sections begin with a brief discussion of the heresies before examining orthodox (officially recognized) doctrine.

“So if it turns out that Christian doctrine as interpreted by those creeds and councils is incoherent, then, at the very least, large segments of Christendom will be forced to revise their religious views and also, perhaps, to revise their views about the authority and reliability of the relevant creeds and councils.”

The Trinity
The orthodox challenge, in light of the above quotation, is to show how there are three divine persons and yet only one God.  A variety of analogies have been offered to illustrate how this might be understood. [1]

The social analogy
Social Trinitarians believe the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one Godhead in a way analogous to Abraham, Sarah and Isaac being one family.  Each family member is not a complete family on their own; however, each member is complete in the sense of being a “complete instance of a single nature, humanity.”  Thus, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in two senses: (a) they are members of the single Godhead, and (b) they each fully possess (or are a complete instance of) the divine nature.  One problem with this analogy is that a family is an impersonal set of personal beings.  “So while we can say that a family is welcoming, in fact it is literally not the family that is welcoming but rather the component members of the family.  And by the same token, it is not God that is loving but rather the token members of God.” [2]

Psychological analogies
The most prominent form of this analogy compares God with a human that has multiple personality disorder.  See Thomas V. Morris, The Logic of God Incarnate.

The statute-lump analogy
Perhaps when we say that three persons are distinct and yet the same God, we mean to say that they are same with respect to something without being identical.  Stated precisely: “x is an F, y is an F, x is a G, y is a G, x is the same F as Y, but x is not the same G as y.”  Rea and Murray ask us to consider Rodin’s statue, The Thinker.  It can be described both as a lump of bronze and as a statue.  The lump of bronze shares the same matter in common with the statue; however, we can melt down the statue and still be left with the lump of bronze.  Though they share all their matter in common, the statue and the lump of bronze have different persistence conditions, and thus are not identical.  Perhaps this helps illustrate how the Trinity is the same with respect to divine nature, and yet distinct with respect to personhood. [3]

Arguments for the Trinity
Putting aside whether or not the doctrine is coherent, are there arguments in favor of it?  Those with prior commitments to scriptural inspiration will want to examine exegetical arguments. [4]   Richard Swinburne has offered an a priori argument for the doctrine of the Trinity; here is my (rough) reconstruction:

1) A perfectly loving being exists.
2) God is essentially a perfectly loving being.
3) Perfect love requires a beloved (second person).
4) Perfect love requires a third person whom the lover and beloved can cooperate together in loving.
5) Since God was free to abstain from creating anything, it is possible that no created persons exist for him to love.
6) Therefore, there must be three uncreated persons (and anything more would be unparsimonious).

Those that deny God’s intrinsic loving nature will not be compelled by this argument.  Perhaps God would not be loving if he abstained from creating.  Others reject Swinburne’s argument, doubting that our intuitions about love should ground conclusions about God’s nature.

How can it be that Christians worship Jesus, when the the first commandment explicitly forbids them from worshiping anything but God?  The answer, of course, is that they believe Jesus is God incarnate.  “But what could possibly lead someone rationally to think that a thirty-something-year-old Palestinian man, born to a local carpenter and raised in a town of little import, was none other than the Lord of the Cosmos in human flesh?”

The Lord-Liar-Lunatic argument was developed in the seventeenth century by Blaise Pascal and then popularized in the late twentieth century by C.S. Lewis.  Pascal and Lewis proposed three competing theses about Jesus: 1) he was divine as he claimed, 2) he was an incredibly deceitful liar, or 3)  he was a lunatic.  As far as convincing those who don’t already accept the conclusion (i.e., being dialectically appropriate), the argument assumes that the Gospels are somewhat reliable–at minimum a man named Jesus existed who claimed to be divine.  In what ways has this argument been challenged?  Some propose a fourth option: that Jesus was sincerely mistake.  They point to great rulers like Julius Caesar and Akhenaton who believed themselves to be divine.  Unless one appreciates the stark contrast between monotheistic conceptions of God and other Roman or Egyptian deities, this resistance might seem plausible … but Jesus was not crucified for claiming to be a powerful superhuman, rather he was crucified by the Jewish community for claiming to be Yahweh (the omnipotent and omniscient creator of all things). [5]  After noting some other objections to this argument, Rea and Murray conclude that it appears “stronger than some contemporary critics have given it credit for being.”

The doctrine of Incarnation describes Jesus as one person with two complete natures, fully human and fully divine. A host of heresies are listed: Arianism (Jesus was not fully divine), Ebionism (Jesus was just a man), Docetism (Jesus was not fully human), Nestorianism (Jesus was not one person), Monophysitism (Jesus didn’t have two natures, only one divine nature), Appolinarianism (Jesus lacked a human soul), and Monothelitism (Jesus had only one will).  All but the last heresy were specifically condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.

Rea and Murray address two problems with this doctrine.  The first problem with the orthodox doctrine is that it posits a divine person with two wills (human and divine).  If Jesus the man (body/soul/will) is the second person of the Trinity incarnate, why wouldn’t there be two persons (human and divine) to accompany the two wills (human and divine)?  A second problem arises from scriptures which imply that Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52), or reported his own lack of knowledge about the last day (Matthew)–if Jesus is divine wouldn’t he be omniscient?  Likewise, how could Jesus be genuinely tempted to sin if he was divine (impeccability)?

Solving these problems requires probing exactly what it means to “have a human nature.”  Three-Part Christology says that Jesus consists of a body, soul and the Son (second person of the Trinity); notice, there is only one person mentioned since (presumably) the body and soul don’t constitute a separate person in the case of the Incarnation.  But why the special case of a body-soul not constituting a separate person?  The answer seems to be that God the Son assumed the body-soul composite, and thus human personhood is absent.  This doesn’t explain how the assuming of the composite actually works, but it does show how that the doctrine can be coherent.

Regarding the problem of Jesus and omniscience, the book of Hebrews says, “Although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, [and] being made in the likeness of men.”  Kenosis theories suppose that Jesus either abandoned omniscience or else gave the appearance of not having omniscience.   Unfortunately, this also entails that omniscience is not an essential divine attribute since Jesus is divine but not omniscient.  Another response to the problem of omniscience, developed by Thomas Morris, is the “Two Minds” view of the Incarnation in which “the divine mind of God the Son contained, but was not contained by, his earthly mind, or range of consciousness.”  The earthly conscience didn’t have fully access to the divine mind. [6]

A variety of problems and potential solutions confront the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.   Nevertheless, none of the objections presented succeed in rendering these doctrines incoherent.

1 See also, Jeffrey Brower and Michael Rea, “Understanding the Trinity,” Logos 8 (2005), pp. 145-57. (online draft)
2 Dr. Randal Rauser offered some helpful comments on a draft of this post.  Also see his article, “Is the Trinity a True Contradiction?
3 See Peter van Inwagen’s essay, “Three Persons in One Being: On Attempts to Show That the Doctrine of the Trinity is Self-Contradictory”, in The Trinity: East/West Dialogue, M. Y. Stewart (ed.), Boston: Kluwer, pp. 83–97.
4 James White’s The Forgotten Trinity gives excellent attention to detail regarding the Biblical basis for this doctrine.
5 Daniel Howard-Snyder, “Was Jesus Mad, Bad, or God?…or Merely Mistaken?” Faith and Philosophy 21 (2004), pp. 456-79.
6. Thomas Morris, Our Idea of God (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991), p. 169.


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