If 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.