« continued from ‘Square circles and the Trinity, part 1: believing contradictions’
In the first part of this series I talked about contradictions, and argued that if the doctrine of the Trinity really is true it cannot be self-contradictory. If it contains a contradiction, then it’s not a reasonable answer to any of the ultimate questions of reality (such as “who is God?”), and indeed it cannot even be believed. This dealt with the first part of Steve’s Zara’s comments from his second rebuttal in our debate.
The second part of those comments focuses around the idea that the doctrine of the Trinity is like the doctrine of a square circle. That is, Steve claims that the Trinity really is self-contradictory, and uses this geometric analogy to illustrate his point. It’s an analogy I find quite acceptable, and so I’d like to take it and use it as a basis for showing how we can reasonably believe the Trinity to not be contradictory, despite initial appearances.
II. The square circle
A square circle is obviously a contradiction in terms—at least at first glance. In this way, it is a very apt analogy for talking about the Trinity. It’s very helpful. It’s an analogy we can understand and use. So much so that I’m going to go ahead and argue that the doctrine that God is both one being and three beings is exactly like the doctrine that some geometric object has both one side and four sides. (We could equally talk about one side and three sides, as James Anderson does in Paradox in Christian Theology. It makes more intuitive sense to do so, since the analogy corresponds better to God’s nature. However, since Steve has introduced the analogy of circles and squares, I’ll stick with it.)
Person, being, and essence
Now, firstly, notice how I have formulated this statement about God: that he is both one being and three beings. This is not a typical formulation. Normally theologians use different terms: they distinguish between God being one in essence and three in person. Thus they draw a distinction between the way or the sense in which God is one, and the way in which he is three. This is of great importance, because it establishes that he isn’t both one and three at the same time and in the same sense. If he were, this would violate the law of noncontradiction, and the doctrine of the Trinity genuinely would be irrational and unbelievable. It could not be true, because it would be incoherent. Indeed, this is what Steve was trying to show: after all, on the face of it the notion of a square circle is certainly incoherent. It makes no sense. It is a contradiction in terms. It cannot be true.
So theologians generally talk about God as one essence and three persons. The essence is God; the persons are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For example, Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology formulates the doctrine of the Trinity as follows:
- God is three persons.
- Each person is fully God.
- There is one God.1
Yet, for my argument, I’ve said that God is both one being and three beings. Why haven’t I described this in terms of essence and persons? Well, it’s not because I think the orthodox formulation is faulty or inadequate. I do affirm that the way in which God is one being is different from the way in which he is three beings. But I want to be sure that the paradox inherent in the Trinity is not obscured behind this terminology of “essence” and “persons”. I want to lay bare the ontology of the Trinity (that is, the nature of its being), so that there is no doubt about how confounding and difficult it is.
When we talk about God, or when the Bible talks of God, it is referring to a single divine being. More than that, it is referring to a single, personal divine being. When Moses speaks to the LORD in Exodus, he is not speaking to an impersonal essence, and neither is he speaking to three divine persons. He is speaking to one divine person. So when we talk about God, meaning the Godhead, we are talking about a personal being—yet one who is also somehow three personal beings.
The term “essence” tends to obscure this. It’s good for avoiding the law of noncontradiction, but it’s not so useful when we come to talk about God as God. This is because we don’t have a personal relationship with an essence called God; we have a personal relationship with a person called God. So it turns out that this term “essence” is helpful for clarifying that the way in which God is one being is different from the way in which he is three—but it’s quite unhelpful in terms of actually describing what it means for God to be one being and three beings simultaneously but in different ways.
In other words, when I say that God is one being and three beings, I mean the following:
- God is one being in one way (call this sense A);
- God is three beings in another way (call this sense B);
- But we don’t know what it means to draw a distinction between ways of being.
Understanding senses of being
The strength of (iii) shouldn’t be underestimated. Try to imagine someone you know being himself, yet also three beings. The only way we can really conceive this is to think of multiple personality disorder. Yet this is decidedly contrary to how we know God to be. There isn’t any way that someone with multiple personality disorder can be three beings, mentally speaking, and for those three beings to also share fully in one mental being. We can imagine three mental personalities sharing in one physical being (and in this sense we can perhaps very dimly understand the Trinity by analogy). But we can’t imagine three mental personalities sharing fully in being one mental personality. Even if all these personalities were harmonious, they would still only be parts of the whole being. But the Father is not a part of God; he is fully God. Like the Son and the Spirit, he shares fully in all of God’s attributes. Each person of the Trinity is the same being as God.
So it must be admitted that there seems to be a paradox in the doctrine of the Trinity. We just don’t understand what it means to be one being in one way, and three beings in another way. We have no conception of such a thing because we have no experience of it. To be a bit colloquial, we just don’t get it.
However, although we don’t get it, we can see that it is not necessarily a contradiction in terms. Rather, when we put it into noncontradictory language, it just remains baffling to us. But why should it not? All things considered, we can’t really be surprised that God is someone whose nature we do not, and perhaps cannot, fully understand. It comes as no shock to the Christian that God is baffling. There’s an entire doctrine in systematic theology, known as the incomprehensibility of God, which is built up around this fact. Being God is certainly a condition none of us will ever experience. And since we understand things primarily in terms of our experience, our understanding of God is necessarily limited. We can understand the concept of God’s mind in terms of our own minds; but where there are differences we are confounded. We can understand God’s love in terms of our own love; but where there are differences we are bemused. Yet we cannot understand God’s timelessness, because we ourselves have no experience of it. We grasp it in only the most abstract way.
This does not mean that these things are not explicable in principle—merely that they are not explicable to us. Just as a color-blind person may find the concept of a distinction between red and green inexplicable, yet can accept the possibility on faith from a normally sighted person, so we can find the concept of different senses of being inexplicable, yet accept the possibility on faith from God.
Reconciling the square and the circle
This returns me to Steve’s analogy of the circle and the square. Let me draw on James Anderson’s work and extend it a little bit (I’m relying on Paul Manata’s review of Anderson’s book, which I unfortunately have not read myself). I’d like to give an example, which I think is a convincing one as analogies go, showing that it’s reasonable to believe that the doctrine of the Trinity is resolvable—even if we can’t see how:
Imagine a two-dimensional world called Flatland, inhabited by two-dimensional people. To these people, three-dimensional objects like spheres or cones or cylinders are simply inexplicable. Since the Flatlanders only have experience of two dimensions, they cannot conceive of three-dimensional shapes. These are simply beyond their understanding, because the entire conceptual framework of their minds is limited to the horizontal plane. Now, you are able to communicate with the Flatlanders, and you wish to talk to them about cylinders. How do you do this?
Well, if you’re trying to reveal to them what a cylinder looks like from the side, you might say that it’s a square. If, on the other hand, you’re concerned with revealing something as regards how it looks from above, you might say that it’s a circle. Both of these propositions are true. You, as a three-dimensional being, find it trivial to reconcile them, because you can see that the cylinder is shaped like a square in one way (let’s call it sense A), and shaped like a circle in another way (let’s call it sense B). You can see that neither the square nor the circle are “parts” of the cylinder in the way we usually use the word; and both share fully in its nature. Yet they are distinct.
The Flatlanders are not so fortunate. They don’t know what it means to see something from above or from the side. These terms have no meaning to them; words like “height” and “vertical” don’t correlate to reality as they know it. They can’t conceive of objects with height because they can’t conceive of height itself. They can only conceive of shapes with two dimensions—and in two dimensions a circle cannot be a square. They don’t know, nor can they understand, what it means for something to be shaped in different senses or different ways. They have a conception of the horizontal sense, but not of the vertical sense. So an object which is both a circle and a square appears, at least as far as they can understand these things, to be a contradiction in terms. Nonetheless, they have reason to believe you when you tell them about cylinders, and so they formulate the following way of talking about them:
- A cylinder is one-sided in one way (call this sense A).
- A cylinder is four-sided in another way (call this sense B).
- But we don’t know what it means to draw a distinction between ways of being sided.
Now the Flatlanders are quite correct to formulate their understanding in this manner. They know that what you have told them is explicable to you; that it is real and true and believable. That is, there’s nothing intrinsically irrational or incoherent about a square circle when it’s configured as a cylinder, and it does not violate the laws of logic—even if they can’t understand how. Therefore, having reason to trust you, they hold that a cylinder is shaped in sense A as a square, and in sense B as a circle—even though they don’t have any idea what it means for there to be different senses of shapedness. Similarly, we have reason to trust God, and so we hold that as a being in sense A he is one, and as a being in sense B he is three—even though we don’t have any idea what it means for there to be different senses of being.
Can we believe what we can’t understand?
So far, I’ve been talking about the ontology of God. Ontology is the area of philosophy which deals with the essential nature of things; with the nature of being. I’ve suggested that, ontologically speaking, God is one being or one person in one sense, and three beings or three persons in another sense. However, because we don’t know how to draw a distinction between different senses of being, there tends to be an implicit equivocation in our ontological descriptions of God. This results in the appearance of contradiction.
What I mean is, we talk about the Father being fully God, the Son being fully God, and the Spirit being fully God. But this seems to imply that the Father is the Son, and the Son is the Spirit, and the Spirit is the Father, and so on. They’re all one being, after all. But if they are all one being, then it seems to us that there is no ontological distinction between them—so how can we talk about them as different beings? Looking to the cylinder analogy, though, it’s evident that this would be like the Flatlanders saying that the square is the circle, and the circle is the square. The contradiction appears because our descriptions are limited in accuracy. When it comes to the nature of God, we suffer the same sort of conceptual shortcomings that the Flatlanders do when it comes to the nature of space. Our language describes things with a level of accuracy corresponding only to our own perception; not necessarily to the actual state of things.
Therefore, we just don’t have words to describe God accurately enough to avoid confusion. Because of this lack of precision, we seem to be contradicting ourselves when we aren’t. There is what Anderson calls an unarticulated equivocation in our description of God. A certain distinction in God’s nature goes unsaid because our language can’t capture it. God’s nature is more subtle, more fine than our language is. Trying to describe his being in human terms is perhaps a little like trying to measure the width of a hair with a tape measure. The tool is too coarse for the job. Thus, the paradox we perceive is a merely apparent contradiction, resulting from an unarticulated equivocation (what Anderson whimsically dubs a MACRUE). Once we articulate that equivocation (that is, once we explicitly distinguish between senses of being), we see that no real contradiction exists. We just find the solution inexplicable.
But in the previous part of this series I argued that we cannot believe what we can’t understand. Am I now contradicting myself, since we can’t understand the Trinity; or am I merely apparently contradicting myself, due to an unarticulated equivocation? The latter; so let me articulate. In the previous post, I was discussing logical contradictions. These are inexplicable in the sense that they are meaningless. Since a contradiction cancels itself out, it means nothing. And we can’t understand something which has no meaning.
However, the Trinity is inexplicable in a different sense. God’s being is not logically meaningless. Indeed, it is logically meaningful. We can explicate it, as I have above, and we can understand it in logical terms. For example, if I wrote out a description of the Trinity symbolically you could read and understand it. It wouldn’t contain any contradictions, nothing would cancel itself out, and it would be meaningful.
What this doesn’t imply is that this meaning itself is explicable to us. Something can have objective meaning but remain subjectively inexplicable. Objectively, a contradiction has no meaning; and so subjectively it naturally does not either. But objectively, the Trinity does have meaning. This fact alone doesn’t imply that we must be able to grasp it, but in principle it can be grasped. To a sufficiently enabled mind, the meaning is available. But to us? No, not necessarily. Just as the distinction between red and green can be believed in principle, yet not really understood by a color-blind man; and just as the distinction between horizontal and vertical can be believed in principle, yet not really understood by the Flatlanders; so the distinction between being and being can be believed in principle, yet not really understood by us.
Economy versus ontology
This is why theologians, when speaking about the distinctions between the persons of God, generally avoid ontology. We are limited in terms of describing that ontology, as witnessed by our fanciful analogies involving square circles or lumps of bronze which look like statues. We find it far more useful to talk about the economy of the persons of God—that is, their interpersonal relationship, and the relationship between their functions. And in that regard, there is a great deal which can be said; a great many distinctions which can be drawn and meditated upon. These economic distinctions are helpful for describing the ways in which the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are distinct—and they are spiritually more important than whatever ontological distinction exists as well. I’m not going to go into these economic distinctions in this article, as ontology is really at issue and I still need to address it further if I’m to adequately dissect Steve’s argument—but as I do so, bear in mind that these economic differences exist, and that they are important. I encourage you to study them further.
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (England: InterVarsity Press, 2003); p 231.