If one had to choose a teaching of Christianity that caused more confusion than any other, the leading candidate would likely be the doctrine of the Trinity. Who has not been told at some point that God is both one and three, and that, though contradictory, such Christians must acquiesce for the sake of faith? Critics—both popularizers and sometimes academics—often hold up the Trinity as an exemplar of Christian irrationalism, proof that Christians cannot be both reasonable and faithful.

But the dogma of the Trinity, as disclosed in the life of the Church, revealed in the Scriptures, developed by the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, formulated at the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, and interpreted by the likes of Boethius and Augustine in the West and the Cappadocians in the East, does not demand acceptance of either contradiction or blind faith. As traditionally formulated, the doctrine is not contradictory at all.

Whence, then, the confusion? For both misguided believers and ill-informed critics, the answer tends to be that they have mistaken the elements of Trinitarian doctrine. Many criticisms raised in academia compound the error with a sort of malpractice of the philosophy of language, or by simply ignoring the traditional fundamental tenets about the nature of God

As Aquinas observes, language signifies a conceptual content generally and is directed toward a specific reality. Sometimes what we say may not signify much in the conceptual order (as when one asks of an unknown animal wandering through the back yard: “what is that?”). At other times language can be rich with content but not designate any real object, as with fairy tales.

This distinction between language’s ability to signify and to designate makes the difference between the mystery of the Trinity and its caricature, “mysterianism.” The Trinity is indeed mysterious. But in acknowledging mystery, we nonetheless grasp our language own about that mystery. We need not entirely comprehend something to understand what it is that we might say about that thing. When dogma concerns the mysteries of God, it may not exhaustively disclose divine things, but we should not conclude that dogma itself is beyond understanding. As Philip Cary pithily put it: “Although God is incomprehensible, the doctrine that God is incomprehensible is not.”

Take, for instance, Dale Tuggy’s criticisms of Trinitarian doctrine. Tuggy is a philosopher and a Christian at CUNY Fredonia. Tuggy’s work is instructive, because it exemplifies common assumptions about the Trinity which—though usually thoughtful and lucid—render the traditional doctrine unintelligible. Explaining what goes awry in Tuggy’s critique helps to identify those unspoken presumptions that can occlude what Trinitarian doctrine actually says. And by clearing away misunderstandings about the Trinity, we can easily see that Trinitarian doctrine does not pose any contradictions.

History, Analyzed

Analytic philosophy has a reputation for Procrustean treatments of intellectual history. There is some truth to this prejudice—Bertrand Russell did author A History of Western Philosophy, after all—but at present many analytically trained philosophers do excellent work on historical figures, either in the form of intellectual history or by bringing older sources into contemporary debate. These treatments succeed because they buttress their concern for argumentative rigor with an understanding of the broader historical and metaphysical frameworks in which those arguments can be intelligible.

Tuggy’s treatment of the Trinity too often borrows from the Russell’s school. Certain mistakes result from an inadequate survey of the Patristic tradition. For instance, Tuggy claims that Christians before Origen’s authorship of On First Principles (c.216-32) thought of the Word as coming into being at a particular time.1 Beyond the obvious Scriptural ground for the eternity of the Son (Ephesians 7:2, Hebrew 7:24, Revelation 1:8), even a quick skim of the early post-apostolic fathers shows the Word’s eternity confirmed, for instance in St. Ignatius (b. 50 AD),2 and by the first major Christian systematic theologian—St. Irenaeus (b. 125 AD).3

Similarly, Tuggy claims that catholic theologians first insisted on the full divinity of Christ in the fourth century, and he has in mind the Cappadocian Fathers and Constantinopolitan council. Yet, again, the New Testament attributes the proper names of God from the Old Testament—Lord, I am—to Jesus,4 and the apostles preached the same message. St. Irenaeus in the second century declared that “The Father is Lord, and the Son is the Lord, and the Father Is God, and the Son is God.” Tertullian (b. 155) remarks that “thus does He [i.e., the Father] make Him [the Son] equal to Him [i.e., the Father]: for by proceeding from Himself He became His first-begotten Son, because begotten before all things.”5 And it was Origen of Alexandria who pioneered not just the language of hypostases to distinguish the Father, Son, and Spirit, but likely also the term “homoousios”.6 And, of course, the Nicene’s council’s declaration of the Father and Son possessing the same being, and the description of the Son’s being “true God from true God” is unmistakable.

Aside from simply overlooking textual evidence, Tuggy pays scant attention to the close relationship between dogma and practice. Tuggy claims that “Early on, Christians did not call the Holy Spirit ‘God,’ nor did they worship or pray to the Holy Spirit.” Not only does the Scripture regard the Holy Spirit as the inner source of Christian worship (e.g., I Cor. 12:3), the means by which believers receive Christ and have access to the Father (Eph. 2:18),—but even at the first generation of Christians, Christians were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. If baptism does not count as an act of worship, needless to say, nothing does. Indeed, in the controversies about the status of the Holy Spirit, those who regarded the Spirit as divine were able to appeal precisely to the prayers and practices of the Church.
At other times, Tuggy does engage with the primary sources but misconstrues their meaning. For instance, he argues that St. Augustine means by the term person “basically … nothing.” In support of this rather surprising view—given the sheer quantity of pages in which Augustine talks about what he does mean by the persons of the Trinity—Tuggy appeals to De Trinitate VII.11, where Augustine says that

“the only reason, it seems, why we do not call these three together ‘one person’, as we call them ‘one being’ and ‘one god,’ but say ‘three persons’ while we never say ‘three gods’ or ‘three beings,’ is that we want to keep at least one word for signifying what we mean by ‘trinity,’ so that we are not simply reduced to silence when we are asked three what, after we have confessed that there are three.”7

Applying the distinction between signification and designation, Tuggy interprets Augustine to mean that the term “person” is used without signifying anything, while (presumably) designating the Father, Son, and Spirit. Yet this is clearly not what Augustine is saying. Augustine is explicitly talking about the difficulty of selecting a Latin term to signify what is meant by the three “hypostases” (a Greek term) of the Trinity. The difficulty is that the Latin terms that typically render ousia and hypostasis, namely essence and substance, do not express a distinction. They mean more or less the same thing. The Latin term persona was chosen, as Augustine notes, not because it already includes the connotations Trinitarian doctrine expresses, but simply because, as Latin lacks any term readymade to express the distinctions central to the Trinitarian formula, some term must be chosen lest Christians are “simply reduced to silence when we are asked three what.” This is simply how terms of art are coined.

Augustine makes the context of his remarks—namely, the difficulty of capturing the Greek in Latin—hard to miss: prior to the passage Tuggy quotes, one finds Augustine saying “our Greek friends have spoken of one essence, three substances; but the Latins of one essence or substance, three persons; because, as we have already said, essence usually means nothing else than substance in our language, that is, in Latin.” And the entirety of the passage cited by Tuggy concerns the question of how best to render the Greek into Latin. Tuggy neglected the linguistic difficulties that Augustine painstakingly addresses, with the result that the position he criticizes turns out to be his own misinterpretation.

Trinitarian Doctrine

Tuggy summarizes the traditional Trinitarian view as “The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are just one thing and they are not.”8 More precisely, Tuggy summarized the doctrine of the Trinity as holding that “The Father is identical to God, the Son is identical to God, and the Holy Spirit is identical to God, but the Father is not identical to the Son, the Son is not identical to the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not identical to the Father.”9

Tuggy maintains that the “is” in this formula is an “is” of identity, and “God” is used in precisely the same way in each instance. Moreover, Tuggy thinks the term God designates a particular entity, and that either the terms “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Spirit” likewise designate particular entities (resulting in tritheism), or aspects of a single instance (modalism). Tuggy’s objection is both logical and metaphysical. It cannot be the case that a=Z, b= Z, and c= Z without a, b, c, and Z being identical. If Tuggy has accurately captured the doctrine of the Trinity, then he has demonstrated a logical contradiction and an incoherent metaphysics.

Although the summary Tuggy provides does not express the classical Trinitarian dogma, it does state with remarkable clarity some of the most common misconceptions of Trinitarian doctrine. The misunderstanding concerns both the language used to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity (specifically the way in which the term “God” is predicated), as well as the metaphysical frameworks native to the Patristic period. In the subsequent two articles, we will consider both of these in turn.

  1. Dale Tuggy, “Ten Steps Towards Getting Less Confused About the Trinity #6 Get a Date, Part 2”, www.trinities.org/blog.

  2. St. Ignatius, Letter to Polycarp 3:2.

  3. St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies II.13:8.

  4. For an accessible (and sometimes needlessly skeptical) scholarly survey of the uses of the Old Testament designation of God in the New Testament, see Raymond Brown’s Introduction to New Testament Christology.

  5. Tertullian, Against Praxeas ch.7.

  6. See M.J. Edwards, “Did Origen Apply the Word homoousios to the Son?”, Journal of Theological Studies 49,578-590 (summarizing the historical evidence).

  7. St. Augustine, De Trinitate VII.11, quoted in Dale Tuggy, “10 Steps toward getting less confused about the Trinity – #5 “Persons” – Part 1,” www.trinities.org/blog.

  8. “The Unfinished Business of Trinitarian Theorizing”, p. 172.

  9. “Unfinished Business”, p. 172.