Tim on the Trinity

Here’s Tim’s talk from last Sunday’s Home community gathering. Tim is a philosopher at the University of Oxford (you may be able to tell!).

I’ll set out what I perceive to be the main philosophical problem concerning the doctrine of the Trinity and then set out a solution to the problem that I like. Along the way, we’ll have a couple of video clips which I hope will be illustrative and which are, if nothing else, entertaining to me.


The Creeds tells us that Jesus is God; The Holy Spirit is God; and God the Father is God. How are we to understand this?  First, let me give two answers which Church Councils have ruled to be false, indeed heretical. It’s these two answers having been ruled to be false that’s generated the philosophical problem with the doctrine: there don’t seem to be any other answers (that might be true).


Heretical Answer Number 1

Let’s interpret the Doctrine of the Trinity as meaning that Jesus is a God; the Holy Spirit is another God, and God the Father is a third God. That, councils have always taught, is not how it’s to be interpreted; that’s the heresy of believing in three gods – Tri-theism. Rather, they’ve taught, Jesus is the same God as the Holy Spirit, who in turn is the same God as God the Father: there aren’t three Gods; there’s just one. This prompts …


Heretical Answer Number 2 

Let’s interpret the Trinity as meaning then that ‘Jesus’, ‘The Holy Spirit’, and ‘God the Father’ are just three different names for one person, God, in the manner that ‘Tim’, ‘Dr T. J. Mawson’, and ‘Timothy James Mawson’ are just three different names for the one person who is me. This interpretation though collapses the persons of the Trinity into one: Jesus ends up simply being identical to the Holy Spirit, who in turn ends up simply being identical to God the Father. If ‘Tim’ is just another name for who or what is named by ‘Dr T. J. Mawson’ and ‘Dr T. J. Mawson’ is just another name for who or what is named by ‘Timothy James Mawson’, then whoever or whatever is Tim just is whoever or whatever is Dr T. J. Mawson and just is whoever or whatever is Timothy James Mawson. What distinctively ‘Trinitarian’ content is left? We wouldn’t say that I was a Trinity just because I can be referred to in three ways; why say that God is a Trinity? Well, perhaps God – in contrast to me – has three and only three manners in which reference to him may be correctly made because he has three and only three very distinctive modes of his one unitary being. Well perhaps, but nothing more Trinitarian than that remains on this account and thus tradition has labelled this account a heresy and labelled it ‘Modalism’.


Sweeping these two ways of interpreting the doctrine of the Trinity off the table then generates the main philosophical problem with the doctrine: there appears to be nothing left on the table: there doesn’t seem to be any other way of interpreting it that makes it make sense.


In order to plot the path of safe passage between the Scylla and Charybdis of these two heresies – Tri-theism and Modalism – tradition asserts that Jesus, The Holy Spirit, and God are the same in substance (Tri-theism is avoided) but different in persons (Modalism is avoided), but this is to plot the path, not navigate it: it is simply to restate the parameters within which a solution must lie, not to provide that solution. How can any x, y, and z – or even, more simply, any x or y – be the same substance as one another, that is made out of identical stuff to one another, yet be different persons to one another, that is non-identical to one another? Surely the logic of identity forbids it? If x is identical to y, then that’s that: they’re identical – identical substance, identical person, identical everything. And if they’re not identical, then that’s that. They’re just not.


Having stated the problem, it’s time for a bit of light relief before I describe the solution to it that seems to me best.


Mr Deity and the Identity Crisis Clip




So, that’s the problem: How can Jesus be God, the Holy Spirit be God, God the Father be God, and yet Jesus not be the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit not be God the Father? In a moment, I’m going to turn to the solution to this problem that seems to me to be best. But before I do that let me say what I understand to be the generic form of solutions to problems of this sort.


The problem we’re looking is a particular instance of a general type of problem that arises elsewhere in Philosophy; it is one of alleged incoherence in a claim. Instances of alleged incoherence, if they are to be removed, are to be removed by analogies. The general form of argument against an alleged incoherence will always be like this: ‘You say that it’s incoherent to suggest that p might be the case? Well, can’t you imagine q being the case? Yes? You can? So you agree that it’s coherent to suggest that q is the case. Well then, on reflection, isn’t q pretty much like p, quite closely analogous to p? You agree that it is? Well then, shouldn’t you concede that you’ve got at least some evidence from considering the analogy between q and p to think that p isn’t really incoherent after all; it just seemed prima facie to be incoherent?’ The closer the person admits the analogy to be, in relevant respects, the better reason he or she will have to concede he or she’s being given to suppose the alleged incoherence is not in fact really an incoherence at all. Of course, in any analogy there will always be points of disanalogy: that’s what makes an analogy of a thing an analogy of it rather than a literal description of it. And of course someone wishing to persist in alleging an incoherence one can always pick up on one of these points of disanalogy and assert of it that it’s relevant in such a manner as to mean the argument from analogy doesn’t work. So arguments from analogy aren’t in some sense proofs, but they’re of necessity the only type of argument available to us in the context of arguing against alleged incoherence, so we shouldn’t complain about this, which is a necessary feature of them; without the feature they wouldn’t be arguments from analogy.


All of this being the case explains why it’s no accident that the history of philosophical and theological reflection on the nature of the Trinity is replete with analogies; we heard a couple at the start of Paul Fiddes’s talk earlier in this series. We may already have our favourite: the Shamrock leaf; the three phases of water; three people dancing; or what have you. What I’m going to do now then is present another analogy, my current favourite analogy. It ‘works’ – in the way that arguments from analogy can work – for me. If it works for you too, great; add it to your list of analogies; but if it doesn’t work for you, leave it to one side for others. One great thing about arguments from analogy is that you don’t have to confine yourself to one: the Trinity might be a bit like what I’m about to describe and a bit like a Shamrock leaf and a bit like the three phases of water; and a bit like three people dancing; and a bit like infinitely many other things too. If you want to add the following to the ways you finish the sentence, ‘When trying to understand the Trinity, I think of it as a bit like …’, then I’ll be glad. If you don’t, I won’t be offended. Okay, here’s a way into the analogy.


Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure Clip


(From 5:20 – 6:19)


And here’s a passage from a recent article by Brian Leftow.


‘A Latin Trinity’, Faith and Philosophy, 2004, p 307 (From ‘You are at Radio City…’ – ‘…with many of something in it’)


Analogously to the Rockettes, Leftow suggests, God’s life runs in three streams, if you will – Jesus being one; the Holy Spirit being another; and God the Father being yet another – three persons, in one substance. Now the most proximate heresy here is certainly Modalism; one could with some justification say that, in the imagined scenario, there’s only one person – Jane – in the Rockettes as they appear on stage that night; it’s just that she – unusually – appears on stage in three different places at the same time, with three different bodies; three different consciousnesses; and so forth. But, it’s not clear that this charge will stick; the way we count persons doesn’t clearly dictate that we not answer ‘Three’ when asked how many persons we have seen in front of us on the stage that evening. But, in any case, we can tweak Leftow’s analogy somewhat and – it seems to me –avoid Modalism obviously. If the problem with Leftow’s analogy as it stands is that it can be fairly presented merely as an example of the same person – Jane – appearing in three ways, we can eliminate that problem with a slightly different story.


Imagine then that I have a million Lego bricks, including various clever Lego motors and pulleys. I use them first to make a life-size animatronic model of Matt Rees. I then send that back in time so that it runs through its programme for the duration of this service. Once it’s done its bit, I break it apart and use the bricks to construct a life-size animatronic model of myself, which I too send back in time to the start of the service, so that it can interact with the model Matt Rees and indeed give a talk on the nature of the Trinity. Once it’s done that, I break it apart, and use the bricks to make a life-size animatronic model of Caroline and send that back in time so that it can interact with both the model of Matt and that of myself. The real Matt, Caroline and myself then go to the pub, leaving our animatronic Lego doppelgangers to do our work for us and leaving you – the rest of the congregation – none the wiser.


If I’d done all this, then I’d have created a situation in which there’d be three distinct models of people interacting with one another, yet each model person would be made of the same substance as each of the other model people, would be made of the same Lego bricks. Now of course that’d be a case of model people sharing the same substance, not real people: you can’t make real people out of Lego. But real people must be made out of something and that something out of which real people may be made might be similar to Lego in the relevant respect. It certainly doesn’t seem incoherent to suggest that it is similar in this respect and if it is similar, then you could have three persons in one substance, interacting with one another like Bill and Ted, the Rockettes, or my animatronic models of Matt, Caroline and myself. Thus it’s coherent to suggest that there may be three persons in one substance. Well, that’s what I say.


So, what I’ve tried to do this evening is this:

(a) state what I understand to be the main philosophical problem with the doctrine of the Trinity (viz. avoiding Tri-theism on the one hand and Modalism on the other)

(b) give a general account of how problems of this sort are to be overcome (by analogy); and

(c) articulate what is to my mind a useful analogy, or rather family of analogies – time-travelling Bills and Teds, Rockettes, and animatronic Lego models.

I hope it’s been of interest.

T. J. Mawson



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