Toward the Trinity

warning-analogies13If we had to go with Dale Tuggy’s categories for the moment, we’d liken orthodox trinitarianism to what Dale calls “noumenal concurrent modalism” as opposed to his “phenomenological modalism.” The latter form of modalism posits ‘modes’ adopted by God as means of representing himself to the world. As such they’re not self-constituting; God relates only to us now as Father, now as Son, etc., and the distinction between these is merely formal. Modalism of this sort was condemned historically because the divine relations were believed to be definitive of God in more than a merely formal sense.

If the divine relations are forms of self-relation, then we’re not talking about a merely formal distinction between modes or roles God adopts in representing himself to the world. Instead, we’re imagining relations (perspectives? Language strains!) as constitutive of divine being per se (as far as we’re able to speak of these relations analogously).

What might such an analogy look like? In our view it could extend from human being as an analogy of God. As sentient beings, conscious subjects, we self-perceive or self-relate, and in self-relating are able to objectify ourselves; we image ourselves. We exist as persons minimally as this self-constituting conversation. We also reflect upon this conversation and observe it. This may not conform nicely to the options which Dale specifies as being our only trinitarian options in, say, his Stanford article (i.e., “She’s a three-selfer,” or “He’s a one-selfer”). Dale may need some new boxes. But it seems to us that the concern to regard YHWH as being the One God can be adequately accounted for in terms of the (Orthodox belief in the) ‘monarchia’ of the Father. As Nicaea begins, “I believe in One God, the Father Almighty….” No ambiguity there.

Imagine (analogously) a self-relationality (that which defines us as personal/relational beings) that obtains perfectly and paradigmatically in God (as he whose image we bear). Edwards’ approach expresses it nicely. Just as I self-contemplate or self-perceive and in this self-defining act generate an ‘image’ of myself as the objectified content of my self-perception, so God can be thought. Every conscious self objectifies itself and in this act self-relates. Kierkegaard would help here.

One concern is that even if this were true of God (such that the divine relations could be viewed as God’s self-existent act) these ‘perspectives’ don’t seem sufficiently independent or concrete. These ‘perspectives’ within us aren’t distinct ‘persons’ (and this is where our term ‘person’ fails). Hence at best we get what Dale calls a “noumenal concurrent modalism” — three ‘perspectives’ that define God essentially but which can’t bear the weight of the additional claim that these perspectives are ‘persons’. What to do?

It may be that Edwards can help us here. He suggests that where our powers to perceive (and in perceiving to reproduce or represent to ourselves, i.e., to have a perspective on ourselves) the truth about ourselves (thus generating our own image and self-relation) are inherently limited, God is not so constrained. I cannot consciously contemplate all that is in fact true about myself without remainder, and what I contemplate cannot reproduce the contemplated in its actuality. In addition, as a finite being whose ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ are in no way identical, this distinction between ‘essence’ and ‘existence’ is not the case with God. As a created being who exists contingently in the perpetual movement from potency to actuality, my existence and essence are never coterminous. This could not be the case with a necessarily existing self-existent God. In God’s case, all that is in fact true and actual about God the Father (YHWH) becomes true of his self-contemplated image. Nothing that ‘is’ in the case of the Father could fail ‘to be’ in the case of his own self-perceived image, with the exception of course that the ‘image’ (as the word suggests) is ‘derived’ whereas the Father is not so derived (i.e., the Father is not an image of anything else). This distinction is Athanasian.


Is my own ‘image’ me? Well, yes. And “I” wouldn’t ‘be’ apart from this self-relation. Are both numerically identical? Well, no; though where this relation is constitutive essentially of God’s self-defining actuality, both would share a single ‘nature’. But they are different self-constituting ‘perspectives’. This dialogue, this address and response, constitutes God’s undivided existence. (We’re definitely not thinking of a social trinitarian model.)

As an analogy, we’d like to extend a thought James Loder used to explain how ‘reason’ and ‘language’ map our experience of quantum mechanics (QM) as a means to imagine our shortcomings along theological lines. QM defines itself in terms of the question put to it. The answer you get (‘location’ or ‘velocity’) depends on the question you ask (Where are you? vs What’s your velocity?) But scientists and philosophers suppose reality — that which the world ‘is’ — not to be ultimately contradictory, and that ultimately how our experience of the world requires us to describe things is transcended by what is in fact the case. Whatever reality truly is (at the subatomic level), it is in fact a unity whose indivisibility just is the different answers it yields on the level of our perception and description re: relation and identity. We are led by our reason to posit that which ‘cannot be said’. The shape and form of our saying it at once involves us in paradox, though we must say it as we do.

In terms of one articulation of things, yes, Dale’s right, the truth of God certainly appears ‘modalistic’ in light of every attempt to possess the relations in terms of their unity. Similarly, the truth of God will appear ‘polytheistic’ in light of attempts to possess the relations in terms of their diversity. But — returning to QM for the moment — the math which describes reality achieves a sort of ‘creedal’ status and affirms both unity and diversity. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Planck’s constant are the Nicaea and Chalcedon of QM — we might say. We comprehend their terms and we must ‘say it’ so, but we can’t help but complain that they posit a world which defies final explanation and which the categories we have to deploy balk at in their own way.

Having offered a psychological analogy of the trinity, we want to make it clear that (a) this is an analogy and not a claim to have univocally described ‘what’ God is, and that (b) other analogies are needed to expresses other aspects of the biblical narrative, and that (c) all these analogies together fail, as all analogies must, to reduce triune being to their respective truth. Karen Kilby is right to warn us against too confidently reducing God to any one analogy (cf. her “Is an Apophatic Trinitarianism Possible?” International Journal of Systematic Theology 12, no. 1 (2010): 65–77). We don’t assume God is simply a blown-up version of what human ‘personal’ existence is. However, it is our personal existence (as opposed to that of rocks, trees or cows) which by virtue of bearing the divine image is an analogy of God.

(Pictures here and here.)

4 comments on “Toward the Trinity

  1. Jeff says:

    “We comprehend their terms and we must ‘say it’ so, but we can’t help but complain that they posit a world which defies final explanation and which the categories we have to deploy balk at in their own way.”

    J: What QT equations actually do (since they are not — indeed, can’t be — interpreted in terms of actual conceivable properties of actual 3-D-extended entities) is model certain aspects of our experience to a great degree (not perfect) of precision. As such, they don’t even tell us the events are caused or that metaphysical phenomenalism is false. That events can be modeled doesn’t tell us those events are caused. That comes from our own intuition, if at all. Modeling merely deals with temporal and spatial relations.

    And of course if creatio continua or occasionalism is true of all events except libertarian final causality, QT equations aren’t mysterious at all. The supposed mystery is created by assuming:

    1) Neither creatio continua nor occasionalism holds for even non-libertarianly-caused events,


    2) that what are currently believed to be fundamental particles are indeed fundamental rather than composites (if they are composites of particles smaller than the shortest wavelength of light used to “observe,” we aren’t even close to understanding what ultimately causes macro-phenomena).

    If either 1) or 2) is false, QT doesn’t even ask relevant questions if those questions have to do with caused events. And apart from causality, there is no such thing as an explanation. Needless to say, scientists can’t prove either 1) or 2) is true. There is no model of material behavior that models anywhere near all of our “observations,” much less explains them. Hence, mathematical models are used for their utility, not because they give us a clue about the constituents of the physical realm or their actual behavior.

    Of course people try to give material interpretations to the equations, but this is not even possible for QT in terms of causality. Because any condition for which there was no antecedent condition or conditions necessary and sufficient for its instantiation is, by definition, an uncaused condition/sate of affairs. This is precisely what the probabilistic nature of QT equations would mean if it did something more than merely model temporal/spatial (as opposed to causal) relationships probabilistically. But it doesn’t do more than that, by definition.


    • tgbelt says:

      Ah, yes. I remember now, Jeff. You are, I believe, a complete determinist when it comes to the material world. And you seem extremely confident. Are there any competent scientists you respect who disagree with you on this (i.e., on the indeterminate nature of QM)?


      • Jeff says:

        QM equations are probabilistic. In that sense, they are not deterministic. But before one speaks of uncaused events (and physicists have when speculating on the Big Bang, virtual particles, etc), you have to define what you mean by them. And logic texts define cause (rightly, IMO) to just mean that causal conditions are antecedent, necessary and sufficient for the “effect” conditions. Defining clearly this way, we can meaningfully speak of uncaused, “naturally” caused, and libertarianly caused events. So the issue is not whether matter behaves deterministically. The issue is, as much of the time, how do you clearly define such that your distinctions work, conceptually.

        But as I said of my 1) & 2), scientists can’t show that either is true. They merely assume they’re true and then live with the explanatory problems that creates. They then proceed to call mere temporal/spatial modeling explanation. In the mere sense that we sometimes use “explain” to mean “predict,” this is fine. But of course nothing is actually predictable if events aren’t caused. In that case, any correspondence between expectation and “observation” is serendipitous. It’s much worse of course, because if events aren’t caused, even memory itself is utterly serendipitous correspondence of past events and current beliefs.

        Causality can’t be ditched without creating huge epistemological problems. But the “sufficient” in “sufficient conditions” is what means there is no such thing as a cause that is non-deterministic, in that sense. That’s why even call free-will self-DETERMINISM. It’s just what we mean when we use “cause” in the sense of being “sufficient” to produce the effect. This is what many physicists deny of QT. As such, many of them are quite aware of the huge epistemological problems created thereby. Some I’ve talked to have no qualms dumping the LNC to hold onto their supposed QT metaphysics (as if one could even communicate or define at that point!).


  2. Jeff says:

    Tom: Are there any competent scientists you respect who disagree with you on this (i.e., on the indeterminate nature of QM)?

    J: I didn’t really address this question directly. Bohr, Bell, Einstein, Bohm, Feynman, and other world-renowned physicists believe or believed that Quantum equations are not capable of being interpreted coherently in terms of a causal model of matter. Moreover, it is a logical fallacy to appeal to experts when experts in the same field of expertise disagree. It not only proves nothing, it doesn’t even prove what’s more probable. Scientists have been wrong about most of what they have believed. Virtually every time we get better telescopes and microscopes (etc), theories come crashing down.

    Who knows what the smallest particle is? Certainly not we humans. We have no way of knowing observationally whether the smallest particles are significantly smaller than the smallest wavelength of light used to “observe.” What we think are fundamental particles may be composites. And maybe that’s why we haven’t come up with a matter model that even explains gravity, even though we have math that models it.

    If you read up on QT, you’ll see that the whole thing is a mere heuristic approach. When they speak of measurements, they only mean that it WOULD be a measurement of “momentum,” “velocity,” etc if the old classical model of the atom was valid. But QT assumes that model is false. IOW, it’s not really a measurement in the sense that it is normally meant by that term. That’s why Bohr admitted that using logic and the old model of the atom, observations can’t be explained coherently–you have to combine the language of the classical model with quantum language to “predict” an arbitrarily-interpreted velocity, momentum, etc within the mathematically-determined probabilistic range. IOW, it is not a prediction in the sense of the hypothetico-deductive methodology at all. And in that sense, the words “explanation,” “prediction,” “measurement,” etc, when used to discuss QT, simply don’t have the meaning they normally have when used of causal theories.

    When they interpret the observation to infer a velocity, momentum, etc, they’re talking non-sense if the LNC is a valid principle. No such measurement is actually occurring. It was only known to possibly be such a measurement while the old classical model wasn’t yet falsified per its assumptions. Those who disagree with the experts I listed above equivocate incessantly when doing QT-talk, leading people to believe they’ve shown the LNC to be invalid as a principle, but they’ve done no such thing. They’re just equivocating. The math and the associated heuristic method merely work AS a heuristic. That’s all there is to it so far as one can tell USING the LNC as a principle.

    But as a heuristic, it is indeed WELL corroborated. By analogy, relativistic gravity equations “work” quite well as mere spatial-temporal models. But the recent standard model of matter does not currently account for dark matter interpretations. Moreover, the gravitational equations would “work” whether or not gravity works “at a distance,” as per ER, as per metaphysical phenomenalism (since the math only works in terms of values assigned to points in space), or as per occasionalism (not to mention a-causal views of all of those). Finally, to my knowledge, ER still hasn’t been reconciled with QT.

    Math has utility because of how it can model temporal-spatial relationships. It doesn’t give us ontology.

    “Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, “But how can it be like that?” because you will get ‘down the drain’, into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”
    Richard Feynman

    “If anybody says he can think about quantum physics without getting giddy, that only shows he has not understood the first thing about them.”
    Niels Bohr

    “If someone says that he can think or talk about quantum physics without becoming dizzy, that shows only that he has not understood anything whatever about it.”
    Murray Gell-Mann


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