« continued from ‘Square circles and the Trinity, part 2: the nature of the Trinity’
This article has been heavily revised as of July 4, 2008, in response to a detailed critique from Mike, which can be viewed in the comment stream.
I’ve now talked about contradictions; argued that the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be self-contradictory; acknowledged that Christians must concede at least the appearance of self-contradiction in it nonetheless; and then provided some reasons to explain why this contradiction might appear, and how it might be resolved. I’ve almost said enough to take on a critical examination of Steve’s formal argument. First, though, there is one vital issue which I must draw out of my previous post, which will significantly alter how we, as Christians, see that argument from the get-go.
III. How the ambiguity of being affects the law of identity
In part 2, I mentioned that God does not have parts: the Father is not a part of God; the Son is not a part of God; the Spirit is not a part of God. They are all fully God. They all share fully in God’s attributes. That is, each person of the Trinity is the same being as God. I then went on to suggest that it is reasonable to assume that there is an unspoken equivocation in our understanding of being. God is one being in one sense; three in another—but we don’t understand what it means to draw a distinction between ways of being. Nonetheless, it follows by good and necessary consequence from Scripture that “being” is not a univocal term; it does not (necessarily) have only a single, unambiguous referent. When applied to God, at least, it seems to refer to more than one thing, even though we don’t understand exactly what. When we subject the doctrine of the Trinity to logical analysis, we find that it forces us to formulate a doctrine of being which gives a consistent account of it: the principle of Non-Univocal Being. (Following in Anderson’s slightly droll footsteps, I dub this “NUB”.)
NUB appears central to Christian metaphysics, and affects it in a larger and fairly significant way, because it has ramifications for the law of identity.
The law of identity is one of the three major logical axioms. Simply put, it is the notion that an entity is the same as itself: A is A. By corollary, an entity is not the same as some other entity: A is not B. If an entity was the same as some other entity, then it would be one and the same with that entity: A is B. The reason this is important is because, if we make this identity statement fully explicit, we find that it is saying that
- A is the same as B with respect to its being
This is an unproblematically clear statement on the face of it. For a non-Christian it’s probably always unproblematically clear. However, for a Christian committed the thesis of non-univocal being, it is not necessarily clear, despite appearances. For example, if “A” is the Father and “B” is the Son, this statement is both true and false, because it contains an unarticulated equivocation. It is true in one sense for the term “being”, and false in another.
This has obvious ramifications for a certain category of arguments about the nature of God—a category which includes Steve’s argument in part 4 of this series, and similar ones employed by various would-be Christians in support of their Christological heresies. These arguments leverage a key feature of identity, which is transitivity: If A is the same as B, and B is the same as C, then by transitive relationship A is the same as C. This is important because we can draw the following kinds of inferences:
- The Father is the same as God.
- The Son is the same as God.
- Therefore, the Father is the same as the Son.
This is a heresy called Sabellianism or modalism, and is similar to the way in which Steve appeals to transitivity in his argument. However, because it relies on a univocal understanding of being, a Christian has no reason to accept it. If Christianity entails a non-univocal theory of being, he can see clearly that the argument only appears to go through because it equivocates.
Now, let me be clear. I am not suggesting that a non-Christian must accept, on his own terms, that this argument equivocates. He is by no means committed to a thesis such as NUB. He has no reason to be, because he does not presuppose that the Bible’s testimony regarding the nature of God is in any way authentic. What I am saying here is that a Christian may reject the conclusion of this argument because, on his own grounds, the testimony of Scripture gives him good reason to believe that the argument commits some kind of non-obvious error. Because the charge of self-contradiction is an internal critique of the Trinity, the Christian may bring all of his own religion’s resources to bear in refuting that charge. Since NUB is at least one way in which the apparent self-contradiction of the Trinity can be resolved, a Christian has every right to argue that the conclusion of the above argument is false, which is merely apparently contradictory as a result of an unarticulated equivocation. In fact, a Christian need not even be committed to NUB at all in order to use it as a means of showing that in principle these sorts of arguments fail to conclusively prove self-contradiction. Even if NUB is not true, it constitutes a defeater to the argument; just as the greater-good defense constitutes a defeater to the problem of evil, even if it isn’t true.
In other words, as an internal critique of Christian theology, the above sorts of arguments fail. I will show how Steve’s argument in particular fails in the final part of this series. This, alone, does not constitute any kind of reason for a non-believer to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. He can argue against it on other grounds. But NUB is sufficient to show that, on Christian grounds, the charge of internal incoherency is invalid. Having now said this, I think I’m at the perfect point to tackle Steve’s formal argument.