Dale Tuggy. What is the Trinity? Thinking About the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. CreateSpace, 2017, 142 pp.
In one of his comedy sketches, Jim Gaffigan recalls an occasion when his young son said: “Look daddy! A silver stick!” Gaffigan replied, “Actually son, that’s an antenna!” Puzzled, the boy replied: “What’s an antenna?” After a moment, Gaffigan replied sheepishly, “It’s a silver stick.”
The Trinity is to the average Christian as an antenna is to Jim Gaffigan: we know just what we mean … until we’re asked to explain it. And that’s why the simple question at the heart of Dale Tuggy’s new book is so challenging.
If there is anyone well suited to ask some probing questions on the doctrine of the Trinity, it’s Dale Tuggy. A professional philosopher, Dale has been thinking hard about this doctrine for twenty years, much of it through a range of popular and academic articles as well as his prodigious blogging and podcasting at his Trinities blog. I’ve long been a fan of Dale’s clear writing, pedagogical skill, and dry wit. So when I learned that he had added his new book What is the Trinity? to that growing library of resources, I knew I had to get a copy.
One thing you should know at the outset: Dale does not accept the church’s doctrine of the Trinity. Indeed, Dale is a unitarian. (While he saves that revelation for late in the book (p. 132), it would be hard to miss the hints prior to that point.) For Dale, that means that there is one absolute God, the Father, while the Son and Spirit are lesser beings not equal to the Father.
Now you might be wondering: why read a unitarian about the Trinity? Fair question. First, we should note that while Dale is presently a unitarian, he started his inquiry twenty years ago as a committed evangelical trinitarian. Indeed, at the time he was convinced that “Only dastardly pseudo-Christian cults denied it.” (1) Dale will insist that he was persuaded to adopt unitarianism by the weight of evidence. And in the spirit of iron sharpening iron, I find it a healthy exercise in critical thinking to engage with dissenting perspectives.
Dale embodies the philosophy of the Bereans (a biblical allusion to which he appeals more than once). Just as the Bereans kept an open mind to what Paul had to say, so we should keep an open mind to Dale. Having said that, What is the Trinity? is not an apologetic for Dale’s particular views: rather, it is an invitation to the general reader to undertake their own journey of theological reflection and clarification.
Ten Chapters: An Overview
Sadly, many will be resistant to begin this journey out of fear that they will be led into error as a result, an error that could lead to the loss of their very salvation. I know that worry myself (and I talk about it at some length in What’s So Confusing About Grace?).
But before we worry about getting our doctrines wrong we need to clarify just what trinitarian doctrine is in the first place. And that is by no means clear, a point that Dale brilliantly illumines with the following scenario:
Imagine meeting a new neighbor who introduces you to the two women at his side.
“Hi neighbor! This is my wife Alice. We’ve been married for exactly five years.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“And this is my wife Betty,” he says, pointing to the other woman. “We’ve been married exactly three years.”
“I’m pleased to meet you and your two wives,” you reply. “I’ve never met anyone who was married to two women.”
“Oh no, neighbor, we don’t say ‘two wives’ or ‘two women.’ In truth, I’m married to just one woman; I have just one wife. True, Alice is one person, and Betty is another; but we neither confuse the persons nor divide the wifehood.” (pp. 9-10)
Just as it is by no means clear what this man even means when he insists that his two spouses constitute a single wife, so it is by no means clear what it would even mean to say that three distinct, divine persons just are one God. Surely we can at least seek to clarify what it is we Christians are supposed to believe before we worry about the repercussions of doubting it?
Furthermore, it is worth asking whether God would really damn people for drawing errant conclusions from a study that was undertaken in a good faith pursuit of the truth. So long as we conclude that it couldn’t possibly be so, we only need to concern ourselves with the question of whether we reason in good faith to begin with.
Many others will be resistant to undertaking this inquiry not out of fear but rather out of the belief that we already have all the answers we need: there is one God who exists as three persons. However, in chapter 2 Dale points out that this basic formula is open to many interpretations. And that presses us to consider which interpretation we believe to be correct.
We begin this critical journey in chapter 3 by distinguishing between the biblical revelation of the trinity (that is, Father, Son, and Spirit as three actors in the divine economy) and the church’s later interpretation of these three as comprising one God (i.e. the Trinity).
As Dale sees it, in the early church Christians regularly referred to the Father as “God” in an absolute sense. However this began to change as early as 385 when Gregory of Nyssa referred to the Trinity as God (p. 44). This shift was later ratified by the great theologian Augustine.
The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that God is one divine substance in three persons. But what do we mean by “person”? Dale devotes chapter 6 to this question. Social trinitarians veer toward tritheism by interpreting the divine persons in the Trinity as analogous to human persons in community.
Since Augustine, many other Christians have sought to guard against tritheism by retreating to highly apophatic treatments of person (see Karl Barth and Karl Rahner as modern examples). But as Dale observes, there is something deeply unsatisfying about this retreat to a via negativa: “Can this be the great discovery of Christian theology – that within the one God there are three ‘somewhats,’ three something-or-others?” (p. 62)
I found myself in the middle of this very debate eighteen years ago when I got in an impromptu debate with my Doktorvater Colin Gunton. At the time I insisted, with a nod to Thomas Nagel’s famous criterion for consciousness, that we could minimally assert there is something it is like to be the Father, there is something it is like to be the Son, and there is something it is like to be the Spirit. I concluded that in this sense at least, we could speak of three centers of consciousness — or three minds — in the Trinity. To my surprise, Gunton, a committed Barthian, was resolute in his opposition to this point, a point which I took to be trivially true.
In chapter 7 Dale turns from three persons to the one substance (or ousia). This yields the best chapter title in the book: “‘Substance’ Abuse?” It also yields the most heady chapter as Dale subjects the reader to nine possible interpretations of substance, noting the strengths and weaknesses with each. While I suspect this will be a tough slog for the layperson, for those who endure it provides a very helpful conceptual framework for sorting through the confusion.
By this time it will be clear that defining “antenna” is mere child’s play when compared to the Trinity. But then perhaps that’s the way it is supposed to be. After all, isn’t the Trinity supposed to be a “mystery”? Dale addresses the retreat to mystery in chapter 8.
I know the mystery card well: every year when I teach systematic theology I have students who attempt to preempt theological reflection on the Trinity by playing this card. But Dale cleverly turns this alleged appeal to epistemic humility on its head:
“From our own theoretical failure, we should be hesitant to infer that no living person could do better. This is to suppose that we are more competent and/or better informed and/or more diligent than all others. Are we really all that?” (p. 96)
In short, while one may end in mystery, one should not allow an appeal to mystery to preempt a legitimate inquiry.
Dale also provides a helpful grid for thinking about the topography of appeals to mystery with his illustration of so-called “Mystery Mountain” (pp. 108 ff.). To sum up, when it comes to any set of contradictory or contrary claims, there are four possibilities: (1) agnosticism (failing to affirm either P or not-P); (2) affirming P; (3) affirming not-P; (4) affirming P and not-P.
Only (4) truly puts us on the peak of Mystery Mountain. And as Dale observes it is nearly impossible to stay there: almost inevitably, the proponent of mystery slips surreptitiously back to one of the other positions. Karl Rahner famously observed that most Christians are “mere monotheists”. Look closer, and I suspect that for all intents and purposes, many others are functional tritheists. Suffice it to say, few Christians truly remain atop Mystery Mountain for long.
The book concludes with a couple chapters discussing use of the term “God” and summarizing the resulting disagreement that exists among Christians. Dale then concludes with an epilogue in which he offers the proper response to the debates surveyed throughout the book: “The serious truth-seeker” he opines, “runs towards such disagreements, not away from them. “(p. 140)
At this point, I’d like to offer three points of modest critical engagement with What is the Trinity?
To begin with, I’d like to address Dale’s read of history. Dale believes the triadic formulas embraced by the early church which limit supreme deity to the Father are to be preferred to the later trinitarian formulas that are codified beginning at Constantinople (381). Notably Emperor Theodosius is viewed in a negative light as one who “forcibly installed [pro-Nicene] Gregory of Nazianzus as bishop” and then “assembled a meeting of 150 eastern bishops to, as one historian says, ‘ratify the new order.'” (p. 56)
To be sure, Dale is free to disavow this intrusion of politics into theological formulation as a corrupting influence. But then, why stop there? The fact is that politics and power have played a role in theological formulation since the earliest years of the church. So why not adopt Bart Ehrman’s project of attempting to retrieve other Lost Christianities which were stamped out during the pre-Nicene centuries? Conversely, if one concedes that the divine voice could come through the use of politics and power at an earlier period, why not in the late fourth century as well?
My second concern is that Dale’s method seems at times to be rather individualistic and rationalistic. Consider the point where Dale writes:
no Christian should ever adopt a theology because some supposedly Christian scholar told her so. You must read the sources for yourself, with mind and spirit open. You must ask the one God to clarify his revelation to you, and you must be patient through a process that will probably take you many months, if not many years. (p. 133)
On the one hand, I’m sympathetic with this advice. As Immanuel Kant proclaimed, “Sapere aude! Dare to know!” In other words, we should have the courage and motivation to seek to understand matters for ourselves.
Having said that, there are important limits to this advice. I go through life believing things because trusted authorities told me so. And that kind of deference to authority is fully rational and indeed necessary. So I trust my medical doctor, I trust my meteorologist, I trust my architect, and so on. When it comes to matters of doctrine, isn’t there also a place to trust the theologian and historian, the priest and pastor?
What is more, the matter is not merely what “some supposedly Christian scholar” says, but what an ancient and venerable tradition says. To be sure, I’m not saying one must simply accede to ancient and venerable traditions because they’re old and venerable: “Ecclesia semper reformanda est!” Rather, the issue is a matter of balance. There is a time to seek to critique our beliefs and traditions, but there is also a time to yield to them. And I see nothing wrong with a Christian deferring to the wisdom of a tradition on such a central matter, even when many problems undoubtedly remain.
Finally, I’d like to return to the looming question of orthodoxy. However, rather than focus on Dale’s unitarianism, I’d like to discuss instead another “minority report”: modalism. Throughout the history of the church, there have been professing Christians who adopt a modalistic interpretation of the Trinity. The most significant expression of modalism today is the Oneness Pentecostal movement.
While I thought Dale might show some sympathy for the modalist as a fellow traveler outside the orthodox norm, he instead insists that this interpretation “should be unacceptable to any Christian. The New Testament clearly assumes and implies that there have been and indeed are differences between the Father and the Son.” (pp. 78-9) Later, when discussing the Creed of Nicaea’s claim that the Father and Son are the same ousia (substance) Dale observes, “Theologians point out that this would leave heretical ‘modalism’ as an option.” (p. 98)
I note that Dale doesn’t disavow the description of modalism as heretical. This leads me to wonder how Dale draws the lines of orthodoxy and heresy and why.
What about you?
While Dale’s theology is interesting, this book ultimately isn’t about Dale’s views. Rather, it is about your views. How will you think about the trinity revealed in the New Testament? Will you accept the church’s doctrine of the Trinity? And how will you define key terms like person, substance, and God?
These questions are daunting. But if you’re tired of camping on Mystery Mountain, if you are ready to run toward disagreements in your pursuit of understanding, then What is the Trinity? is an indispensable guide for the journey.