Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Priority Unitarianism as a Form of Trinitarianism???

Sorry for the serious lack of blogging lately - the end of the quarter got me slightly swamped with finals, meetings, and trying to get an abstract together for my paper on why presentism and other such views fall prey to problems relating to moral responsibility. So here's something I've just been thinking about recently (but only for very brief moments at a time before being distracted by something else!):

Dale Tuggy's blog trinities is an excellent one (I highly recommend it) and, as a true-blue trinitarian, this has gotten me thinking a lot more about the nature of the trinity and how to form a version of the theory which is fully orthodox (you know, it avoids heresy and stuff) and yet both philosophically and biblically sound. In our department's metaphysics reading group we've been going through a bunch of stuff on metametaphysics recently and one paper by Jonathan Schaffer was particularly interesting as at the end he offered a very interesting theory about the structure of reality called Priority Monism. The idea here is that, even though there are indeed lots and lots of existents, all of them depend on or exist in virtue of a single substance (a fundamental entity which grounds other, derived entities) which could be described as the world as a whole. What I find interesting about this idea is that on this theory the world is - contra ordinary ways of thinking about mereology in metaphysics - explanatorily or metaphysically prior to or more fundamental than its parts. The world is the substance and its parts depend on it for their existence.

So my thought was, instead of a priority monism for the whole world, why not a priority unitarianism for God? That is, why not say that there is a single substance, God, but that the existence of this substance grounds other, non-fundamental entities, that perhaps can be considered parts of God. Like in the priority monism case, however, the existence of the whole is prior to the existence of the parts. For someone drawn to a social trinitarian sort of view that takes the members of the Trinity as parts of the Godhead, this might be an attractive picture to take since it unifies the members into a single substance in a way that won't work so well if one takes the existence of the parts as prior to that of the whole.

On the other hand, unlike modes of God which would also be derived existents, the persons can still be seen on this view as genuine distinct individual persons since they are indeed genuine parts of God not mere ways of being. So for someone drawn to a modalist picture of God, this might be an attractive picture to take since it individuates the members of the trinity in such a way that makes it possible for them to be full-on distinct and interacting persons.

There might be a few ways of cashing out such a picture. One of them is just to make Father, Son, and Spirit each one of three derived proper parts to God. Another way that might be more interesting and in line with a certain line of the Christian theological tradition that views the Father as most fundamentally (though not more so) divine and the source of divinity for the other divine persons (found especially in the Orthodox tradition) would be take the Father as the single substance of the Godhead and the Son and Spirit as the derived entities. This might, indeed, fit better with the tendency to use 'Father' and 'God' as interchangeable names in ways one might be more hesitant with 'Son' or 'Spirit' (where, when referring to one of the latter, we might more commonly qualify 'God' with 'the Son' or 'the Holy Spirit'). We might be more inclined to say, for instance, that God is Jesus' Father or that God sent Jesus into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, but less inclined to say, for instance, that God is the Father's Son or that the Father sent God into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. This sort of view might be able to make sense of such tendencies - the Father is fundamentally divine whereas the Son and Spirit are derivatively divine.

I'm really not sure whether any such view as one of the above is coherent or defensible but it surely is interesting and worth more examination. But it does offer some sort of way of making sense of the notion that God is both one and three - Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity - God is fundamentally one but derivatively three.

8 comments:

Dale said...

Hi Ian,

My first reaction is, this is pretty much what I thought Moreland and Craig were saying, when I read their initial chapter. It would indeed be a version of ST, and a former version of me wouldn't thought this pretty darned attractive, if only because it avoids any sort of modalism.

The problem is, you've got a quaternity problem - God is surely a divine person, and he's (note the personal pronoun) composed of three others. This is both a creedal and a biblical problem. The Bible contains *at most* three divine persons.

As to its being orthodox, I very much doubt that traditionalists are going to accept "proper part of God" as a way to cash out "divine" or "homoousias" when it comes to the three. Among other things: simplicity. Another issue: the implicit subordinationism. The three exist *in some sense* because of God, on the present view. So, won't it be objected that none of the three exists as se, i.e. solely through itself.

I don't see how saying that God is "prior" to the three will help with either probelm.

stanford said...

You are the time expert Ian, so I defer, but I really think that any orthodox trinitarian theology requires the eternality of the three persons. There is some wiggle room in the idea of a non-temporal begotting (or less talked about but historically more contentious - speaking of our Orthodox friends - the proceding of the spirit), but any focus on the begotteness or suggestion of the creation of the second and third persons has generally been anathematized (fun word). Can you invoke this idea without a created Son/Spirit or a 'when he was not'?

Ian said...

Hi Dale, thanks for the comments! I admit to being worried about some of the same things as you, which is why I held off my endorsement of this kind of position. This might very well be the sort of position Moreland and Craig might have had in mind and if so I think it clears up a lot of the problems with interpretation or seeing their position as just a version of Father-Son-Spirit Modalism and problems like it that were discussed in your blog. The quaternity, subordinationist, and parthood problems, though still remain genuine worries.
I thought that my discussion of identifying the divine substance with the Father would clear up that problem since it makes God a person and yet we still have only three persons. Since a lot of orthodox thought has it (or seems to have it) that the being of Son and Spirit are from the Father, this view MIGHT (emphasis on the "might") be a way of cashing that out and hence not so overly-subordinationist as to cease to be orthodox at least that count. As for simplicity, it might be argued that since the divine substance is prior to its parts what is important for the doctrine of simplicity isn't really lost since on a fundamental level God is indeed simple since any parts he has aren't themselves substances and indeed are dependent on the divine substance for their existence. So, despite the problems, more might be said in favor of seeing at least Son and Spirit as proper parts.
If these don't seem to be good responses, please let me know, and if you have any other new problems let me know that too - I'm still trying to evaluate this sort of view myself and any help would be appreciated.

Ian said...

Hi Stan, this sort of view doesn't invoke any causal notions in the derivation of the persons of the Trinity from divine substance. The derivation and the notion of priority here is metaphysical or logical rather than temporal. The divine substance isn't prior to Son or Spirit in the sense that it creates the Son or Spirit but rather it is prior in that their existence depends logically on that of the divine substance. And if that dependence relation is necessary, then there will be no time or possible world where there Son or Spirit do not exist.

Dale said...

Sorry - I wasn't clear in my first sentence. What I meant was, I thought Moreland and Craig were saying something like this - i.e. the three persons being (1) things/substances and (2) proper parts of God, but it turns out that they're really committed to neither.

The appeal of this sort of ST is that it makes all Three REAL persons - subjects of thought, things capable of knowledge, intentional action, and personal relationships. I assume, though, that a person will be a substance. So it seems the model is of one complex substance, God, with three other substances (the persons) as its proper parts. But presumably all (four) of them are supposed to be divine.

Yes, this is different than your suggestion that we "take the Father as the single substance of the Godhead and the Son and Spirit as the derived entities." But what does that mean? Is that identifying the Father and God, and making this one thing (God, that is, the Father) have two personal parts?

If that's the suggestion, I think it's a new one! I wonder how anyone would find any biblical motivation for it though...

Ian said...

Using Aristotle's definition of substance as 'that which things are said of but which is said of nothing' then I suppose each of the divine persons would be a substance. But not on Schaffer's definition, which is what I was using. On that definition, a substance is a fundamental entity - something whose existence does not depend metaphysically on the existence of anything else (which is a perfectly traditional way of defining substance - very common especially in early modern philosophy). On this latter definition, each of the persons is a separate personal entity but there are not in fact three substances but only one.
And, yes, on the picture I was presenting the Father would be the divine substance with Son and Spirit as derived, personal parts. At the fundamental level, God, however, would not be a complex substance but utterly simple as God would not depend on the existence of any parts - God has no fundamental parts. But at the derived level, of course, God is complex but that complexity is dependent on the existence of the divine substance - those parts exist as a result of the substance rather than the other way around, which I think preserves the core of the doctrine of divine simplicity. (Hmmm...I'm not sure if anything I just said makes any more sense than what I've said previously - I'm still struggling to formulate things here...)
As for biblical support, if you mean by 'biblical motivation' being explicitly taught in or logically entailed by what is explicitly taught in the Bible then of course this theory lacks biblical support. But then so does probably any robust theory of the Trinity. I tried to give some motivation for it in my post regarding the way we use (and indeed the way the Bible generally uses) the word 'God' in conjunction with the three persons of the Trinity. I think this theory can only claim what any other theory could claim - that it is (maybe) consistent with the biblical evidence, orthodox enough, and perhaps the best explanation of the trinity and the biblical evidence for such that there is (though, of course, I'm by no means persuaded that this view does indeed have any of the aforementioned virtues, one could argue in that direction).

Dale said...

I guess I don't understand the idea of something being partless "at one level" and having parts at another. Or maybe I'm not clear on the concept of a level.

As to the Bible - don't be to narrowly logical - it needn't be explicitly or implicitly entailed there - I don't think any of the traditional trinitarian theories are. But a theory could still be the best explanation of what is there - not part of the contents of the Bible, but some further claims which best explain what is there. Of course, to establish that it's the best available, alternative theories will have to be considered, and oddly, this is normally not done at all by theologians. They claim or insinuate, in some moods, that their doctrine can be deduced from scripture, but in other moods, deny that, ignoring the obligation they then have of considering it in relations to its competitors. Go figure.

Ian said...

All I was saying is that if "biblical support" was read extremely narrowly then the theory would lack it but that wouldn't mean it doesn't have it a normal sense - it could have pretty good biblical support by being the best account that fits the Bible. So I guess we're really pretty much agreed about the biblical data and the need to compare the various theories to see which one best account for them. :)

As for the levels, Schaffer takes the job of metaphysics to be to uncover what grounds what and what shows up in what level of reality. So at the bottom level - the fundamental level - you have all the fundamental entities (the substances). Given these and the grounding relations that metaphysics is supposed to uncover, you can derive every other entity that exists. These further levels are of derived entities - entities which are grounded in the fundamental level but which are not fundamental themselves.
So by directly applying the grounding relations to the fundamental level you get a derived level of derived entities. There are now two ways to go from here - stop at this point and say that there are just two levels to reality and we've now included everything there is. OR the grounding relations can be applied directly to this new level to generate even further new entities in which case we've got another level to which the grounding relations might or might not be able to be applied to generate new entities and so on.
That may or may not make things any clearer, but that's the view roughly.