If God is one and all three persons of the Trinity are God, how does orthodox Christianity adequately deflect charges of modalism and polytheism? In other words, if the Father is God and the Son is God, how is the Son not merely an appearance of the Father if there is only one God (monotheism). Yet if the Father and the Son are not transitory manifestations of God but coexist as distinct divine persons, how is orthodox Christianity not another religion of the gods?
Before trying to address this conundrum, it might be helpful to consider some implications of an ancient Trinitarian creed.
We may distill these catholic claims from the Athanasian creed:
1. The Father is God
2. The Son is God
3. The Spirit is God
4. The Father is not the Son
5. The Father is not the Spirit
6. The Son is not the Spirit
7. There is only one God
An apparent contradiction is in view:
A. f = g (premise)
B. s = g (premise)
C. f ≠ g (premise)
D. f = s (from 1 and 2, by the transitivity of identity)
Contradiction or Paradox?
Does Christianity entail the following paradox:
The Father is not the Son (from 4), but because the Father and Son are both God, the Father and Son are the same person (from D).
It seems to me that these conundrums can be dealt with adequately by supplementing additional biblically informed premises alongside the ambiguous ones. Simply augment some of the abbreviated premises with more biblical truth and paradox disappears, yet without being able to uncover the mysteries of the Trinity. (The solution is rational but ought not to be considered rationalistic.)
Is, =, and the law of identity:
It should be noted up front that there is a semantic difference between is and =, for x is y in common parlance does not necessarily imply y is x. Whereas x = y always is equivalent to y = x. For instance, Jim is human obviously does not mean the same thing as human is Jim. However, in some instances, the word is can imply a bidirectional truth or equivalent identity. For instance, there is an equivalence between Joe Biden is the 46th POTUS, and the 46th POTUS is Joe Biden. All that to say, we must be careful to discern what is intended by the verb is. Sometimes the meaning is one directional (e.g., Jim is human), and at other times the meaning is bidirectional (e.g., Joe Biden is the 46th POTUS). In the latter sense, is can be substituted with equals (=).
With that appreciation in place, we can now observe an undisclosed disconnect from what x is, (found in 1-7), to what x equals, (found in A-D). The basis for the inferences found in A-D is sufficiently vague, which I trust will become apparent below. In other words, what does it mean that the Father is God? Does it, also, mean that God is the Father?
Points 1-3 (which utilize “is”) may merely suggest that three distinct persons all share the one divine essence and occupy “the same divine space” (perichoresis). Moreover, there is a qualified difference between each of the three persons when they are individually identified as God. Accordingly, the word “is” ought not to be taken to imply strict philosophical identity (in a creed no less!) without having first defined “God”.
Points A-D that follow (which utilize “=” instead of “is”) either creates, or uncovers, confusion (and possible paradox). Points 1-3 and A-D must be nuanced, for 1-3 does not imply the conclusion of A-D, which entails not only an apparent contradiction but rather, in light of 1-7, an ambiguity that keeps it (A-D) from being either coherent or contradictory. Because A-D suffers from an improper inference from 1-3, it needs clarification in light of the creed.
The creed is not saying anything like God is not God, or the Son is not the Son! Hence, we may with confidence accept 1-7 without assuming it entails the paradox or actual contradiction implied in A-D.
Vague terms lead to unreliable conclusions:
If by God we mean the triune God, then obviously it is false that any divine person is God (i.e., the triune God). For instance, the Holy Spirit is not the Holy Trinity. Consequently, 1-3 is clearly false if God as Trinity is in view.
If by God we mean a divine person among other distinct divine persons, as opposed to a notion of the divine person, then 1-7 is orthodox, and D’s: f = s is not implied, alleviating the paradox in view. In other words, if each person of the Trinity is a distinct divine person (e.g., D1, D2 and D3), qualifying each as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit respectively, then the personal properties of each person undermine the transitivity maintained in A-D.
Implicit modalism put to rest:
Not only can God mean Trinity, which the Son is not, God can also mean the person of the Holy Spirit, which the Son is not. Finally, God can mean the person of the Father, which the Son is not. Accordingly, to say that “the Son is God” and the “Father is God” without further qualification can be equivocal; if taken in light of the law of identity, (as inferred by A-D without defining God), it can imply modalism because identity is transitive. The Son and the Father would be one and the same person, which the creed does not imply.
We may say in a colloquial-theological sense the Father is God just as we may say the Son is God, as long as we have the biblical backing that an unshared and distinguishing personal property of the Father is that he is unbegotten while the Son is eternally begotten etc. Being distinct persons, there are differences of eternal origin among all three persons of the Trinity who are one in being. The Father is divine but doesn’t exist apart from his intra-Trinitarian begetting of the Son. That to say, the Father is not God apart from being a distinct divine person of the undivided Trinity. These Trinitarian relationships are necessary and eternal properties of personhood, not essence (lest the Father is the Son etc). They undermine any serious charge of modalism.
Eternal origin of necessary persons also lays the theological groundwork for monotheism, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves!
If we don’t distinguish personal properties in this way, we don’t do justice to the theology of the creed with respect to distinguishing divine persons. Indeed, it is true that f is g and s is g, and if that were the end of the story, we might be in trouble. Without further elaboration, f is g conjoined with s is g might imply modalism; so, we needn’t be surprised that such constructs, though true, must be interpreted through a biblically informed theological grid in order to avoid apparent contradiction if not implicit heresy.
Mystery and rationality:
Whether there are prima facie intuitive notions surrounding 1-7 that can lead to a conundrum, it can be maintained on the consistency of God, and his intent to communicate to his people, that such intuitive notions, which at first might appear logically problematic, can disappear when we presuppose additional revelation. That is not to say that mysteries can be solved! Logic cannot solve true mysteries, but biblically informed philosophical pursuit can demonstrate that certain doctrines are not actually contradictory. It’s when we think intuitively, which is to say apart from Scripture, we can get in trouble. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that’s an insight of Van Til’s apologetic, which may be carried into discussions around paradox. (For instance, when we use only experience unaided by further revelation we may think that one essence necessarily implies God is one person; when we presuppose Scripture we can know that proposition is false.)
Not to oversimplify or belabor, but to summarize: f is g and s is g can suggest f is s. If is implies =, then we must refine our definition of g. I think we have addressed that horn of the conundrum in a way that satisfies a charge of modalism, but perhaps not without inviting a charge of polytheism.
We’re not out of the woods yet. If each person of the Trinity is a divine person, how do we avoid tritheism? In other words, if the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, how aren’t there three Gods?
One in creation, providence and grace.
Each divine person is operative in the Trinity’s works of creation, providence and grace. The works of the triune God are harmoniously indivisible, a reflection of the ontological Trinity, which establishes the doctrine of inseparable operations.
One Being (including mind, will, consciousness), with no analogy:
The one pertains to the triune God subsisting, whereas the three, to the tripersonal divine being. Each mode of subsistence is divine and consubstantial (without personally identifying as another or as all). Each is one and the same in being, with due consideration given to the theological entailment of three personal modes of subsistence mutually indwelling each other. Mysterious, yes. Contradictory, absolutely not.
A doctrine of three distinct divine persons does not leave us with three gods, for there is numerically one divine essence, which contemplates one mind, will, and center of consciousness existing eternally in three ordered modes of subsistence or persons. The nature of God is disanalogous to the human nature and polytheism, for no two humans or deities have the identical mind etc. Furthermore, no false god or human being is essential to the existence of another. (Traducianism presents no problem).
Eternal origins and necessity of persons:
God is not one in the same manner in which God is three. God is one tripersonal being, whereas tritheism would not entail a Trinitarian conception of essence and all it contemplates, which exceeds mere consubstantial generic unity. Again, the divine nature contemplates one mind, one center of consciousness, one will etc. in a plurality of persons. That’s not a feature of polytheism (or the humanity of, say, Peter, James and John). Related and perhaps more significant is that it is impossible for the Father to be himself apart from eternally and necessarily begetting the Son, which is not at all analogous to the disunity in plurality within a pantheon of independent Greek gods. In other words, polytheism does not contemplate a generic unity of persons of one mind, center of consciousness and will, that eternally exist in an indivisible unity of ontological origins of relations (unbegottennes, begottenness and procession). Additionally, a plurality of gods definitionally and conceptually could exist without godlike equals. Not so with the modes of subsistence of the ontological Trinity. Consequently, for Christianity to be tritheistic, polytheism would have to be radically redefined in order to include a monotheistic doctrine of Trinity! In other words, even if Christianity were to appear paradoxically as a religion of three gods, it would have no relevant resemblance to polytheism. In the final analysis, a false charge of tritheism equivocates over the notion of polytheism.
Perhaps the most absorbing aspect of it all is that the personal properties that defend against the charge of modalism appear to be the same ontological realities that establish the philosophical-theology of Trinitarian monotheism. (The exegetical foundations are, of course, less controversial.)
Back to our question above: If each person of the Trinity is a divine person, how do we avoid tritheism? In other words, if the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, how aren’t there three Gods?
That each person of the Godhead are divine doesn’t lead to three gods, for three gods would entail independent beings that aren’t numerically one in the way in which God is numerically one.
If modalism has been overcome, and the charge of polytheism does not stick due to all the entailments of divine essence (e.g., numerically one mind, conscience, will etc.), along with the eternally necessary inseparable-origins of personal properties that exist in perichoresis, then the coherence of Trinitarian orthodoxy is not affected. Of course, one can always dismiss the doctrine of the Trinity, but I don’t believe it may be justifiably dismissed on the grounds of contradictory doctrine.