Language: Predicating Divinity

Orthodox believers call the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity “God”. To employ the distinction we set forth earlier, “God” can be used to designate the Trinity as a whole, or any person of the Trinity. “God” signifies the possession of the divine essence in the subject of which “God” is predicated. Thus, when we predicate “God” of the Trinity as a whole, or one of the persons, our designation differs while the conceptual content remains the same.

For this reason, believers do not call the Father “God” in the way that this author is called “Thomas,” but more in the way that this author is called human (though with an important difference we will discuss shortly). The Father is God because he enjoys the fullness of the divine essence. Likewise, the Son is called God because he too has the fullness of the divine essence. So too the Holy Spirit. When Christians speak of “God” in each instance, they mean to signify the same conceptual content, but designate a distinct reality.

“God”, then signifies one essence, though it can designate any one of the Persons of the Trinity, or the Trinity itself. So Gilles Emery observes that in “the credo … the Son is ‘God from God.’ Here, the first name God distinctly designates the Son, while the second clearly designates the Father.”  Without accounting carefully for the way in which theological language is actually used, one easily misses what is going on when Christians use the word “God.” An elementary understanding of the philosophy of language should be sufficient to dispel this misconception of the Trinity.


However, when any investigation heads down too far down the path of linguistic questions, we quickly find ourselves in a thicket of metaphysical questions. Does the traditional doctrine of the Trinity mean that the persons of the Trinity share an essence in the way that the author and readers of this article share a certain essence? If we wish to understand the way the Church Fathers would answer this question, we must be attuned to the ways in which theologians of the Patristic era conceived individuation and metaphysical constitution.

For instance: many in the Platonic schools would hold that two human beings share an identical essence, while the more Aristotelian answer is perhaps that each man has a similar essence–formally identical but numerically distinct.
I was once told with the utmost seriousness that I was ridiculous for buying almond milk, because “everyone knows you cannot milk an almond.” Missing the background assumptions of a belief or practice makes even reasonable things seem absurd. One can see a similar confusion when Tuggy attributes to the Fathers the following difficulty: if Father, Son, and Spirit share the same essence in the way that humans or dogs share an essence then “they [i.e., the persons of the Trinity] are not numerically identical to one another, [and] the Father and Son are two different Gods.”
But, of course, in the Patristic era with the welter of scriptural hermeneutics, middle and neo-Platonism, revived Aristotelianism (etc.), this is no more a metaphysical problem than almond milk is a scam. If two physical beings share in the same essence, they are individuated (at least in part) by their material. Thus, two dogs can equally share the canine essence while being different dogs because the canine form is instantiated in different matter.  While it follows for physical beings that universal essence is instantiated in discrete entities, matter is necessary to constitute these beings as individuals. Yet God (qua God) is not a material being. The analogy that humans are to human nature as the Trinitarian persons are to the divine nature obviously cannot hold, because material beings relate to their nature in a fundamentally different way than immaterial beings. Given the insistence on divine simplicity, there is no distinction between God and divine nature. The doctrine of divine simplicity is an essential constituent of Trinitarian theology, not a philosophical roadblock that must be surmounted. The problem Tuggy attributes to the Church Fathers is no more a problem than is the proper way to milk an almond.

Which leads to a second, more fundamental metaphysical issue. Tuggy clearly regards God as a discrete being, a being among other beings.  While this assumption is normal in the context of analytic philosophy of religion, it is quite foreign to early Christianity, both in the theoretical sphere of theology and the practical spheres of liturgy, prayer, and worship. When Moses asks God for his name, the answer is given in terms of being: I AM. At least by the time of Isaiah, the Hebrew Scriptures had secured a firm view of God’s transcendence, and had firmly distinguished his way of being from that of the gods. The strong apophaticism of the Old Testament and the consequent prohibition against idolatry attest that even prior to the Christian era, God cannot be reduced to a mere being among other beings. Thus, while theologians may speak of God as a being, they do not predicate “being” in the same sense of God as they do particular beings in the word. (The analogy of being is not simply a special exception made for God; as Aquinas argues, we do not even refer to all worldly beings as beings in the same sense. )

As David Bentley Hart has vigorously argued, the difference between polytheists and monotheists has never been how many individuals fall into a genus of deities. The difference is, rather, that the gods are beings in the world, usually immortal, that exceed human beings by degree in their power, beauty, intelligence, and (perhaps) goodness. God, on the other hand, is not individual of a kind or a being in the world at all. God’s powers do not exceed those of worldly beings simply by degree. Whereas gods—if there be any—might share in some common essence—or might instantiate a specifically identical essence—in God himself there is no prior essence on which God depends, or which constitutes him as a kind of entity. This is why the early Christians can speak of men becoming “gods”—not as joining the Trinity as another hypostasis, but simply as becoming immortal. Compared to the monotheistic way, Tuggy’s view regards God not as the eternal Creator who exceeds all limits, but as a particularly powerful spirit, a glorified angel—much more a Mormon view of God than a Christian one.

The One God

Classical monotheism (Christian or otherwise) does not regard God to be one in the numerical sense. There is not one God in the way there is one quarter in my pocket or one sitting president of the USA. Numerical unity is an effect of finitude. Counting presupposes limits. A human being differs from a dog because the latter is subject to limits the former is not. Even in the case of one person who is entirely comparable to the other not only in nature, but also by possessing to the maximal extent possible the same accidental features, these persons will still differ because each is limited at a particular time to this material rather than that of the other. For this reason we can count human beings. But God is not a physical being and does not have a limited way of being. It is limitation that enables us to count distinct entities arithmetically. God’s limitlessness makes arithmetical numbering inapplicable.  (See Aquinas’ lucid discussion at Summa Theologiae I, q. 30, art. 2 and I, q 42, art 1.)

An atheist might deny the existence of an infinite source of worldly being, and an analytic philosopher of religion might deny its coherence. But our objective is to determine what traditional Trinitarians say, and this requires us to be able to entertain and evaluate the metaphysical frameworks they employ.

The sense in which God is one is, for the generations that developed orthodox Trinitiarianism, primarily in terms of metaphysical simplicity. Or, to put it another way, God is perfectly one, while we—that is, finite, composite things, are only imperfectly one. Our unity is that of an individual being, individuated precisely by virtue of the diversity of our metaphysical constituents.

God, on the other hand, lacks metaphysical composition. There is, in God, no distinct principle of substance or accident, form or matter, essence or existence—in short, no potency distinct from act. God cannot, then, be distinguished from creatures as creatures are distinct from each other—as one limited thing is distinct from another by virtue of the distinct limits of each, their finite way of being, their place within the cosmic order—but as the infinite differs from the finite. This is, more or less, what the Western Fathers meant when they called God “being itself” and what the Eastern Fathers meant when they said that God was “beyond being.”

Christians have articulated this “ontological difference” variously: the author of Genesis portrays places God above the generation of the world (unlike, say, the Greek gods), Isaiah declares that the Lord’s thoughts and ways transcend those of created beings,  God names himself in terms of Being in the first person in Exodus, St. Paul identifies the triadic dependence of creatures on God as being from, in, and through God, St. Irenaeus depicts God as an infinite surplus of being in which all created things partake as finite participants, St. Augustine identifies God as ipsum esse (being itself),  Dionysius the Areopagite places God beyond being,  Aquinas declared God to be the pure, unrestricted act of existence, and so on. And the notion of God’s transcendence does not originate with “elite” theologians, but with God’s revelation of himself in the Old Testament, especially the prohibition on identifying God with any finite being, any being who occupies a particular place in the cosmos, as well the necessary logic of a Creator who is independently of the cosmos, to say nothing of the liturgical and spiritual practices of the New Testament Church.
Tuggy has little patience for this central aspect of early Christian thought. In fact, he claims that to deny that God is a being, is to be an atheist—an accusation, not coincidently, that simply repeats—for more or less the same reason—the common pagan claims that Christians were atheists. Both believe in a multiplicity of discrete, humanoid entities called gods, and both regard the traditional Christian view that places God outside the order of finite existents as atheism. But if Tuggy (or his pagan forebears) is correct on this point, then the great theologians of the Christian tradition—from Moses to Isaiah to Paul, Irenaeus to Augustine to Aquinas—were atheists. Some theologize in monastic garb, others in tweed suits, and still others sporting tinfoil hats.

Transcendence and Immanence

The specifically Scriptural notion of transcendence is, as Phillip Cary has pointed out,  essential to understanding the Trinity. In much of the pagan philosophical traditions (especially the neo-Platonist stream) and the early Christian heresies (especially the Gnostics and the Arians), God’s transcendence was modelled on a spatial paradigm: distance. As the heavens overarch the earth and its denizens, so God stands above and apart from lower realities—immediately below him stand the immaterial intellects, then man, then animals and plants, and finally inanimate matter. Human salvation was often thought of in terms of ascent, closing the distance from below by freeing the soul from its bodily boundaries so that it may rise through the aeons; or else in terms of descent, either through a series of cosmic mediators or by supplementing philosophical reflection with religious practices (as one can see in Iamblichus’ defense of theurgy.)

Arius’ insistence that the Son’s role as mediator made him something less than God but more than a creature can be understood in terms of this logic of distance. God is—as all other beings in the order of the world—securely fastened to his place in the cosmic hierarchy. His transcendence, then, remains a relative transcendence, not differing in kind from the way one entity transcends another. This sort of transcendence cannot be reconciled with immanence, and so God stands in need of intermediary beings that transit the great chain of being on his behalf.

The Scriptural model of transcendence is, of course, quite different. God’s transcendence is not that of one entity related to another within a common world. God creates the world from nothing—and therefore is not a being in or of the world—and yet “in him we live and move and have our being.” The act of creation renders God both transcendent to and imminent within the world. God is not in the world—he is not a discrete being that is here rather than there, now rather than then, of this sort rather than that—and yet, as the absolute source of being, all beings have being by participation in him. God is more interior to things than they are to themselves. There simply is no distance we need to bridge to “get to” God.

In salvation history, God does not come into the world from without, as in Gnostic mythology. Instead, God creates a distance by meeting us in creaturely form. As in ordinary vision, we do not see the causes of our seeing, so God escapes notice precisely by virtue of his imminence. Jesus’ humanity is strange precisely because God now can be differentiated by the disciples by being over there rather than over here (on the shore rather than a fishing vessel, for instance).

This Scriptural account resonates both with the philosophical arguments for God’s existence and nature. God’s transcendence may be gestured at by the metaphor of transcendence, but it is most usefully articulated for philosophical discourse in terms of metaphysical simplicity. The dependence of individuals, which are necessarily composed of act and potency, on a source that lacks metaphysical composition is subject to metaphysical demonstration.  If, per impossibile, certain theistic personalists are correct insist that the Scriptures regard God as a mutable, finite entity, then it follows that the Scriptural God is not really a creator, but only a demiurge; that god, like the rest of us, depends for his being on the absolute; and that we might best leave the Scriptures for the deeper truths of the philosophers.

In Part III, we will discuss how divine simplicity is not only reconcilable with the doctrine of the Trinity, but a necessary constituent of Trinitarian doctrine.

Read Part I here.