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The Trinity and Polytheism

January 19, 2012

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a metaphysics developed to counter the charge of polytheism. Three individuals – one takes them to be individuals – are mentioned in certain New Testament passages, such as “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19); and “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:13).

If the “Father” and the “Son” and the “Holy Spirit” are each God, then it appears each is a separate God – i.e. polytheism. The doctrine of the Trinity holds that such an appearance is misleading.

Perhaps the first Trinitarian metaphysics is developed by Tertullian in the early third century. “These three are one substance, not one person.” In the fourth century Nicene Creed, Jesus is said to be “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, … begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” The doctrine of the Trinity is illustrated in the late medieval “Shield of the Trinity”:

Although the Trinity is sometimes said to be a “mystery,” it is actually understandable – odd, perhaps, but understandable.

There is one God, but it – and I deliberately use the impersonal pronoun – is the substance which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share, and which is presumably shared by no other being. To avoid polytheism, the term “God” must refer not to an individual but to the substance underlying the three persons of the Trinity, which we can call “God-stuff”.

“God,” taken as referring to God-stuff, turns out to be a mass noun, like “clay” or “water”. The claim that there is but one God is on a (metaphysical) par with such odd-sounding claims as: there is but one clay, there is but one water, etc.

The doctrine of the Trinity befuddles because it flouts our ordinary ways of counting (individuating). Suppose I have a lump of clay – assume it to be all the clay there is – and make three minimal sculptures from it, a sphere, a cube, and a pyramid, and place them on a table. How many things are on the table? The natural answer is three. Someone who gave the answer “one” – as in one clay – would have some explaining to do.

Of course, someone might think that substance is more fundamental (because more permanent) than things; that clay is more fundamental than the objects into which it is temporarily formed. And thinking this, a person might have grounds for answering “one” to the preceding question, How many things are on the table?

But you have to be consistent about this. You can’t consistently answer “three” to the question of how many things are on the table, and “one” to the question of how many Gods are in heaven. Or if you do, you might reasonably be accused of doing so merely to avoid the charge of polytheism.

[Note: Mormonism is sometimes accused of being a polytheism. There are several reasons for this, but one is the claim of “deification” – that men may aspire to participate in the divine nature. If “God” is God-stuff, then – why not? – beings other than the three permanent members of the Trinity can become “of one substance” with them. This blocks the charge of polytheism, but in turn requires some further doctrine of transubstantiation.]

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From → Philosophy

6 Comments
  1. John Hansknecht permalink

    I believe a better analogy would be to use a lake and to avoid ‘God stuff’ and instead use God. At anytime you look you may see Jesus, The Father, or the Holy Spirit, each of them may appear as any part of the lake at anytime. Note the word ‘appear’ as apposed to using a word such as ‘be’ And the lake is God, but it is also Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit. Also note the word ‘any’ in the prior sentence in both ‘any part’ and ‘anytime’. It is not that the water is God and some part of the water is Jesus at some specific time. And note that at all times both Jesus and God are whole. This is why they call it a mystery, because conceptually it is impossible for us to image ourselves as two persons at the same time. I can have a split personality but can only be one personality or another at any time. God doesn’t work that way, Jesus is wholly Jesus and wholly God and the same is true for the Father and the Holy Spirit.

  2. Part of your reply is consistent with (simplified) Aristotelian metaphysics. The lake is God, but it is also Jesus. The object on the table is clay, but it is also a cube. With respect to the clay and the cube, one portion of the clay cannot be both, simultaneously, a cube and a sphere; though it is true that “the clay” can be both a cube and a sphere.

    In scripture, the Son prays to the Father who now and then answers him. These are “two persons at the same time” just as if you and I were having a conversation. The “persons” of the Trinity have to be separate individuals; else what is the point of the Trinitarian doctrine? Talk of appearances begins to confuse this – as if there were really but one God-person who “appeared” in different guises.

  3. Mike Gavin permalink

    Good topic. The “stuff” idea would make sense to me. But I would’ve thought Tertullian meant “substance” in Aristotle’s sense of an individual object or thing, rather than in the modern sense of stuff or matter. So I thought it meant that God was one individual object, although it’s composed of three distinct persons, as in parthood. That also would not be that mysterious, but the Christian scholars repeat again and again that it’s not parthood. Their repetition that it’s not parthood, I do find mysterious.

  4. S. Stidd permalink

    If one is willing to countenance something like panpsychism, then maybe this circle can be squared. Specifically, the Holy Ghost would be something like the conscious aspect of the universe, whereas the Son and perhaps the Father would be specific beings within that universe that nonetheless were fully attuned to the the universe as a whole. So they are ‘fully God’ in the sense that they are consciously attuned to every part of creation and capable of experiencing it – so the story would go anyway – but also discrete beings that composed of parts of that universal Substance.

    B. Spinoza

    • Dear “B. Spinoza”: I think you’re not really B. Spinozo, because B. Spinoza did not have any Gods that were less than the totality of the universe. – F. C. Copleston

  5. Bob permalink

    So is there only one general even though we see many lesser generals under him? After all, they have power in as much as the supreme general grants it to them, like the saints. So far the score is monotheism, 1 and polytheism, 1 and, I’m afraid, forever will it be since both are equally valid and invalid.

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