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Volume 17, Issue 2: Disputatio

"Trinity" Thema: C/A, 15.4

Debated by Douglas Jones and Dr. Nick Gier

NG: Jones' principal thesis is that monism ("all reality is one substance") is really bad, and that monistic philosophy has led to the worship of power, mass conformity, the loss of humor and irony, and the rape of women.  With one fallacious brush, Jones paints all of Asian thought and most of Western philosophy as monistic and proposes that his Trinitarian thinking somehow corrects all of these maladies. I demonstrate that most Asian thought is not monistic and that the schools that are, Zen Buddhism and philosophical Daoism, contain dramatic examples of nonconformism and a consummate sense of humor and irony.  Furthermore, there are fully personalized Trinitarian Godheads in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Religious Daoism, and Hinduism that have produced the qualities that Jones admires (including dancing), but which are, ironically, mostly missing in the history of Christianity. 

John Calvin defines the Godhead as "one simple essence comprehending three persons" and he defends a "unity of [divine] substance" against the Arians. Although Jones embraces Reformed theology, he appears to reject Calvin's formulation when he wrote that "there is no flat oneness that could operate outside the communal aspect of the Trinity."  Jones doesn't realize that if divine unity is just the mere togetherness of three divine persons, then the only logical result would be a polytheistic tritheism.  
Jones sometimes refers to the Greek orthodox tradition for inspiration, and it is clear that his view of the Trinity is more in line with this tradition.  These theologians begin with three divine persons whose unity is derived from their shared divinity.  While the Greek orthodox Trinity does a great job of demonstrating the interrelation of the three persons, it does not clearly support the substantial unity of God, the central doctrine of Judeo-Christianity. When Jones recites the Athanasian creed's "the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one," he can affirm only the divinity of each; he cannot claim a substantial divine unity of them all. In this formulation "Godhead" can refer only to each of the persons individually, not as three persons of the same Godhead, as the Trinity is normally understood. Jones' dramatic images of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit frolicking together as children make for great religious literature, but it is not Judeo-Christian monotheism. Augustine insisted that the Trinity has "a single action and will," so he would find Jones' language quite unusual, if not unorthodox.
DJ: I don't know how Nick Gier generates his monism summary from my essay because I make explicit reference to multiple views, monistic and nonmonistic, such as those privileging "an isolated Cartesian self or frozen Reason or an Eastern One or even a vapid Jeffersonian god."
Alongside this simple misreading, Nick Gier wants to find a Trinitarian godhead in the religions he references, but he seems to think the mere mention of threeness or personality makes a Trinity. None of the examples he cites qualifies as a Trinity (and the same goes for the more specific examples cited in his longer essay). Any counterexample needs to be a fully personal three-in-one monotheism, not three gods unified by impersonal forces or one personal god wearing the masks of three gods or three disunified persons.
Perichoresis lies at the heart of the Trinity. That is not "mere togetherness" of divine persons, a view he falsely suggests I hold. He cites a line from me about "flat oneness," apparently from some private correspondence, not the essay itself. I do defend that language, but it doesn't exclude genuine oneness; it rejects a mere impersonal unity in the Trinity. The Trinity is a fully personal three-in-one, and I can recommend standard Trinitarian sources for more on that point.
Since he somehow thinks I hold to a "mere togetherness" view, he is forced to try to explain away my resting in Athanasian Creed language about divine unity. Like Calvin and Augustine and the East, I reject "mere togetherness," and he won't find "mere togetheness" defended in my essay.
He tries to invoke the Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity but fundamentally mischaracterizes it, while ironically suggesting that the East is marginal and unorthodox in this discussion. 
I'm glad to interact with Dr. Gier in this discussion about the Trinity, but he has yet to deal with any major point in my piece. Since, understandably, he is still trying to come to grasp the historic Christian appreciation of the Trinity, he might want to work through more discussions of that view before declaiming about who is or is not orthodox.
  NG: I'm disappointed in Jones' response.  His original piece is primarily rhetorical, so I was hoping for some theological, philosophical, and historical substance, similar to what I've done on my website []. Even though I have given specifics, references, and graphics in this essay, Jones continues to misunderstand the Asian Trinities.  The religions of Krishna, Durga, and Zoroaster represent fully personal three-in-one monotheism.  To charge that they are not true trinities begs the question of what a theological trinity is.  The New Testament is just as vague about it as any Asian scripture; furthermore, after two millennia Christians cannot agree on a proper trinitarian formulation.
Jones is correct that "perichoresis lies at the heart of the Trinity," just as it does for Shiva, Durga, or Krishna, who are simultaneously Creator, Redeemer, and Destroyer.  Jones' language about three centers of consciousness playing with one another, however, appears not to support perichoresis as the total interpenetration of each aspect of the Trinity.  In order to guard against the tritheism with which Jones flirts, Karl Barth speaks of "modes of existence" and not "persons" of the Trinity.  Jones' three persons apparently act with separate will and action, something Augustine insists, emphasizing divine unity, that the Trinity cannot do.
Jones claims that I do not understand the Eastern Orthodox Trinity, but I relied heavily on the two books that he recommended. In my long essay I summarize the views of Western and Eastern Christianity, and I believe that I correctly locate Jones in the latter camp.  I then show how the Western view fails to make real threeness intelligible, and I then give an argument about why divine unity can only be an abstraction in the Eastern view.  Jones owes us an answer to my arguments.
Jones states that I have not dealt "with any major point" of his essay, but let me summarize what I've actually done: (1) I have demonstrated that the negative charges he lays against monism and Unitarianism are false; (2) that acts of historical Trinitarian believers, with their abuse of power, racism, and intolerance, are the opposite of what Jones' theory predicts; and (3) that Jones has failed to give a formulation of the Trinity that makes threeness intelligible within real divine unity.  The oneness of God is central to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, and any doctrine of God that does not embrace that unity cannot call itself Judeo-Christian.
DJ: Nick Gier chides me for being both clear and unclear at the same time. He insists I misunderstand Asian trinities, and yet, he says the Trinity is vague anyway. It's not that difficult. Every Sunday in every part of the globe one can hear Christians, east and west, confessing aloud the historic creeds of the church—Apostles', Nicene, Athanasian. We hear remarkable agreement on the fundamentals while the church continues to grow in her understanding of the depths of the Trinity.
Those ancient definitions show us that, in the Trinity, both oneness and threeness, unity and diversity, are equally ultimate and thoroughly personal (not even allowing Krishna's "impersonal womb"). Look carefully at Nick Gier's examples in his longer essay. They never show us equally ultimate and personal unity and diversity. Take just one example, the Hindu "trinity," where even cursory introductions to Hinduism repeat that this trimurti means "having three forms." We hear that these three gods are "aspects" or "phases" or "roles," all "analogous to a person performing different tasks." "The plurality of Gods are perceived as divine creations of that one Being." The Christian church rejected this Sabellianism or modalism over a thousand years ago. Modalism denies that real difference lies at the heart of God; it privileges the one over the many. That's one reason Asia is not the haven for women that Gier bizarrely suggests.
Most of Nick Gier's objections are just impositions of his own Enlightenment categories. His distinction between rhetoric and substance, his evaluation of historical and biblical evidence, his use of logic as if it were some neutral ahistorical norm, and his most recent invocations of "intelligibility" against the Trinity all set up his personal judgment as the supreme court of the universe—a typical Enlightenment prejudice. But that's the issue in question. Question authority, I say. Who made his historically-generated standards king? Why should we all bow to Nick's view of intelligibility? Question imperialism, especially Enlightenment prejudices imposed as neutral scholarship.
His comments about Barth, Augustine, and perichoresis are all corrected in the very book he says he's read. I don't understand why someone would insist on picking a fight on a complex topic that he's so new to. It's embarrassing to see a former president of the [Pacific Northwest] American Academy of Religion unable to discern between Sabellianism and the Trinity.
NG: I stand by my claim that all references to the Trinity in the world scriptures, including the Bible, are vague. It took nearly 400 years for Christian theologians to articulate clear creedal formulations of the Trinity. No other religious tradition did this with their divine triads, so it is patently unfair for Jones to judge them according to Christian standards. Besides, these formulations were expressed using Greek terms that are found nowhere in the New Testament, including a word for "trinity."  It is ironic that the religious tradition with the weakest scriptural basis for the Trinity made the most efforts to speculate about its deepest meanings.
Irenaeus, the father of Christian orthodoxy, held the "heretical" view of progressive self-disclosure of the three persons of the Trinity. At the close of the second century Irenaeus admitted that a majority of Christians he knew followed the Gnostic Valentinus. Twenty years later Tertullian reluctantly admitted that a majority of Christians in his area were modalists, the view I believe is the only way to preserve divine unity. Jones flatters me when he charges that the law of contradiction is my own invention, and this debate would not be possible if Jones and I did not obey basic rules of thinking. John Thompson, an author that Jones recommends, knows very well the distinction between substance and rhetoric, and he admits to his readers when a formulation is intelligible or not. As a constructive postmodernist, I have just as many problems with the Enlightenment as Jones does, but that does not mean that we throw out rules of evidence and canons of reasoning just because some eighteenth century thinkers pushed reason too far.
Finally, Jones claims superior theological knowledge, but all that he can do is repeat the creeds and express only a shallow understanding of a very complex doctrine.  He still has not answered the argument that I present against the Eastern formulation. One would expect much more from a Senior Fellow in Philosophy.
DJ: At last, progress. In my former response, I pointed out that Nick Gier's examples of "wondrous trinities" everywhere are actually modalistic, not Trinitarian at all. His latest response finally concedes that modalism is the "only way," an admission that reveals his main line of argument has been quite irrelevant from the start. Triads are not trinities. Modalism privileges unity and makes genuine difference unreal. That was a key point in my original essay. Positing unity as ultimate denigrates particularity, and that often expresses itself in a love of power. We even see this in Gier's own power plays in this discussion. He keeps assuming his Enlightenment standards of "intelligibility" are universal, neutral, and open, when in fact they close the door on the Trinity before the discussion gets started. This is begging the question on a grand scale—Gier's habitual fallacy. He begs the question in his argument "against the Eastern formulation," and he does so in almost every published criticism he's ever raised against Christian reality. I often use examples from his writings in lectures on question-begging and the naiveté of the Enlightenment. So come on, Nick. I'll believe you're an interesting critic of the Christian gospel when you can show us you're able to step out from behind your ideological mask, just for the sake of discussion—when you can step out of the Enlightenment and just explain from a different viewpoint why your criticisms so regularly assume what you need to prove. I'm not asking you to believe another perspective, just to understand why they could legitimately appear so naive to a perspective outside your own.

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