Hope of Israel Ministries (Ecclesia of YEHOVAH):

The Problem of the Trinity: The "Monstrous Dilemma" Between Modalism and Tritheism

Three defenses of the Trinity are the "relative identity" approach, the "social" Trinity and the "divine mystery" defense. However, none of these theories are consistent with the personal God of the Bible, who shows himself as an "I" and not a "We."

by David Kemball-Cook

The famous problem of the Trinity is that no way can be found of defining a Trinity with three distinct Persons of equal divinity which does not also imply three different gods. If the Persons are truly distinct, with separate consciousnesses, wills, memories and emotions, and they are each divine, then they are three different gods (tritheism). If an attempt is made to unite the Persons together more strongly than by possession of a common divine nature, then the distinctness of the Persons is lost and the result is one God with different personal manifestations, properties or ways of being (modalism). It is this "monstrous dilemma" which Gregory of Nyssa [1] (and thousands of theologians since) struggled to resolve. There are three confusions and/or ambiguities in Trinitarian definitions which hide the impossibility of resolving the dilemma.

To show these confusions we will use the following as a typical definition of the Trinity:

[a] God is one Being
[b] There are (exactly) three Persons in this one God
[c] The Persons are distinct from each other
[d] Each Person is God
[e] The Persons share the Being of the one God

The key terms "Person," "is God" and "Being" are each ambiguous.

The Ambiguity in "Person"

The ambiguity in "Person" is between a "weak" sense as a sort of mode or appearance, and a "strong" sense, truly distinct individuals with their own consciousnesses. In the former case the result is some kind of modalism. However the classical Trinity needs "Persons" in a "strong" sense, for the reason that it depends on literal interpretation of verses like John 17.5 to argue that "the eternal Son" existed before he was born. This literal interpretation presupposes that "the eternal Son" has a distinct consciousness and memory from that of "the Father."

The Ambiguity in "is God"

[D] Each Person is God could mean either that each Person is YEHOVAH, a statement of numerical identity, or that each Person is divine, a statement of generic identity.

[D1] Each Person is YEHOVAH.

If each Person is YEHOVAH, then all three Persons must logically be the same individual. This would contradict three distinct "Persons" in the strong sense, and thus would only be consistent with a weak sense of "Person." The result is modalism.

Or

[D2] Each Person is divine

If each Person is divine in the sense of sharing the same divine nature, then it would imply that the Persons have to be distinct in the strong sense. The result is tritheism.

The "Shield of the Trinity" diagram is a good example of this ambiguity.

The "is not" statements use the "is" of numerical identity in asserting that "the Father" is not the same individual as "the Son" (and most would not disagree). The ambiguity lies in the "is" statements. There are two possibilities :

1). The "is" statements mean that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are each YEHOVAH (numerical identity). Then the Persons must be identical with each other, which contradicts the "is not" statements.

2). The "is" statements mean that the Father, the Son and the Spirit are each divine (generic identity). Then there is no contradiction, but there are now three distinct Persons, each of whom is divine, i.e. three gods. [2]

The Ambiguity in "Being"

The ambiguity in "Being" concerns (A) God is one Being and (E) The Persons share the Being of the one God. These statements are the legacy of past attempts to try to find a principle of unity which ties together three distinct Persons. The meaning of "Being" in (A) must be "individual, something that exists." The meaning of "Being" in (E) must be something that can be shared between different individuals, i.e. "essence" or "nature." The two statements contradict each other (one individual cannot also be three individuals), but this contradiction is hidden by the ambiguity of "Being." There seems to be a Trinitarian assumption that the use of a word in two different ways somehow obtains access to some deeper reality in which the two different meanings of the word combine together to reveal some mysterious "truth." This, of course, is not the case. There is no mysterious reality "out there" which is both an essence and an individual.

The table below summarizes these conclusions.

NUMERICAL IDENTITY

GENERIC IDENTITY

"The Father is YEHOVAH"

"The Father is God" (meaning divine)

"The Son is YEHOVAH"

"The Son is God"

"The Spirit is YEHOVAH"

"The Spirit is God"

 
 

MODALISM

IMPOSSIBLE

Persons in "weak" sense
Personal ways of manifesting(modes)

One God manifesting in three personal ways ("YEHOVAH is the Father" etc.)

A mode cannot possess an attribute

     
 

CONTRADICTION

TRITHEISM

Distinct persons in "strong" sense
Different individuals

Three distinct individuals who are the same individual

Three distinct divine individuals

There is no consistent definition of the Trinity which does not result in either modalism or tritheism.

Footnotes:

[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Answer to Abablius: On Not Three Gods.

[2] Philosophers have worked hard to try to find a way in which three distinct divine Persons are not three gods. Three such defenses of the Trinity are the "relative identity" approach, the "social" Trinity and the "divine mystery" defense. Space precludes an examination of these here. However, none of these theories are consistent with the personal God of the Bible, who shows himself as an "I" and not a "We." There is no distinction in scripture between "being the same person as" and "being the same Being as."

 

-- Edited by John D. Keyser.

 

Hope of Israel Ministries -- Preparing the Way for the Return of YEHOVAH God and His Messiah!

Hope of Israel Ministries
P.O. Box 853
Azusa, CA 91702, U.S.A.
www.hope-of-israel.org

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