I woke up this morning with last night’s class discussion still on my mind, so I thought I’d share it with you and see if anyone has a special insight. Here’s the problem: I believe that the Trinity is fully one and fully three, and following the lead of the Athanasian Creed, I tell students that we should say God is both one and three with the strongest possible voice. Modalism isn’t guilty of too much oneness, it’s impossible to have too much oneness in God, but it’s guilty of insufficient threeness. Likewise, tritheism isn’t guilty of too much threeness, it’s impossible to have too much threeness in God, but it’s guilty of insufficient oneness.
One of the advantages of the doctrine of divine simplicity is that it anchors the oneness of God. There is no stronger way to say that God is one than to say that the persons of the Godhead are identical with each other and the perfections of the divine being. But does this powerful expression of God’s oneness leave room to also say God is three? The medievals said the persons of God are formally distinct, but this doesn’t seem to express God’s threeness in the strongest possible sense. On the other hand, saying that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts to God—which would be expressing threeness in the strongest possible sense—does inevitably sound like tritheism.
As I see it, here are my options:
1. Give up belief in simplicity so that I can say God is three in the strongest possible terms. But I’m not prepared to do this, as there are compelling reasons to believe in simplicity, it’s universally held in the Christian tradition (at least until 1980), and the objections to it are not persuasive to me.
2. Back off the threeness of God. Acknowledge that simplicity prevents us from holding the threeness of God in the strongest possible sense, and be content with three personal distinctions within the one divine essence. This strategy is attractive, in large part because it seems to be widely held in the western tradition. But do three “distinctions” express the threeness of God strongly enough? The Son seems to have a center of consciousness that is different from the Father’s, so is it enough to say he is only “distinct” from the Father?
3. Hold both beliefs—divine simplicity and God is three in the strongest possible sense—and chalk the paradox up to mystery. This is what I want to say, though I fear that simplicity may prevent me from holding a robust threeness. And I’m not sure I want to anyway, as saying three in the strongest possible way sounds like tritheism to my western ears.
4. Limit simplicity to the divine perfections. Each of God’s perfections are identical with all the rest, but they’re not identical with his persons. This would free me to say God’s threeness in the strongest possible terms, but would redefine simplicity so that I’m now out of step with the tradition. It would also seem to forfeit the many advantages to the doctrine, such as its grounding of divine aseity and sovereignty.
I’m waffling between #2 and #3. My western tradition pushes me toward #2, but I fear that I’m now fudging on God’s threeness. I want to say #3, but fear that my use of “mystery” may be nothing more than nonsense and that it may land me in unintended tritheism. Any suggestions?
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