Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tuggy contra mysterianism

Dale Tuggy replies to my recent posts (here and here) on “mysterianism” and the doctrine of the Trinity. He suggests that characterizing the Trinity as a “mystery” should at least worry us, for two reasons: (1) It makes it difficult for us to say exactly what it is we are asked to believe when we affirm the doctrine of the Trinity, and (2) Some mysteries are generated by our own theorizing rather than by the phenomenon being theorized about.

To take (2) first, I would reiterate that the seven propositions set out in my first post, which form the core of the doctrine of the Trinity, are implied by the New Testament itself. And what is “mysterious” is how all these propositions can be true. Hence the mystery is in this case generated by the deliverances of revelation, not in our theorizing about what has been revealed. (I realize that skeptics will dismiss the suggestion that the New Testament embodies divine revelation, but Dale would not do so, which is all that matters here.)

What has been revealed, though, is hardly completely opaque, and that brings us to (1). We know that we are supposed to affirm monotheism. We know that we are to affirm the full divinity of each of the Persons. We know that we are also to affirm that the Persons are not identical. That we find it puzzling how these things can all be true itself shows that we have some understanding of them – if we didn’t, we wouldn’t see their conjunction as puzzling – even if it obviously shows also that our understanding is not complete. It is not as if we are being asked to affirm something like the lyrics of “Prisencolinensinainciusol”; the doctrine of the Trinity is not fully intelligible by us, but it is not unintelligible either.

Moreover, the standard analogies Trinitarian theologians make use of (e.g. the intellect, its idea of itself, and the will’s being drawn toward that idea), while imperfect, give us further purchase on the doctrine, especially if read in light of the Scholastic semantic, logical, and metaphysical doctrines in the context of which they were most thoroughly developed (as opposed to the doctrines contemporary analytic philosophers take for granted). This is particularly true of the concept of identity, and thus of the interpretation of “is” where it appears in the seven propositions in question. (We noted in an earlier post how this context is relevant to understanding the Aristotelian-Scholastic claim that the soul “is” the thing it knows.)

To be sure, Dale would probably not be too keen on making much use of the Scholastic philosophical apparatus. He says “I guess I agree that if you load up on medieval speculations about God, the obscurity of Trinity doctrines can seem like no big deal,” and expresses, on biblical grounds, discomfort with the course medieval theology took. I don’t know whether he means to endorse the standard modern caricature of Scholasticism as obscurantist. As readers of The Last Superstition and Aquinas are aware, I would take a very different view. I also don’t know how far he would push a purportedly more “biblical” conception of God away from classical theism and in the direction of the more anthropomorphic approach of “theistic personalism,” but I have said something in earlier posts about the theological dangers of such a move (e.g. here and here).

On a surely not unrelated matter, Dale also seems to me severely to underestimate the extent to which we should expect to find God mysterious. He appears to think that the only sense in which it is clear that God should be mysterious to us is a “trivial” one, insofar as “fully understanding God would require understanding all he knows, which is infinite.” From a Scholastic point of view, and in particular from an Aristotelico-Thomistic (A-T) point of view (which is my point of view), there is a great deal more to it than that. There is, for example, the fact (as we A-T types see things, anyway) that via unaided reason we can know God only as cause of the world, and thus apart from divine revelation are limited in our knowledge of Him to what can be inferred from His being the world’s cause. (This is for Aquinas the reason why the Trinity cannot be known through natural reason.) There is also the fact (again, at least as A-T sees it) that we know the natures of things in the strict sense by defining them in terms of genus and specific difference, whereas in God (given divine simplicity) there is no distinction between genus and difference. Hence, given His nature and the nature of our intellects, we could not even in principle have strict knowledge of His essence. In fact, from a Thomistic point of view only God Himself could ever possibly fully grasp the divine nature. Given these sorts of considerations, what we should expect is precisely that certain aspects of the divine nature will be unknowable to us apart from revelation, and that certain aspects, even once revealed, will remains somewhat opaque to us.

This brings us to Dale’s final worry, which is that appeals to mystery seem an “insincere smokescreen,” mere “dialectical conveniences” or “handy talk to fend off objectors.” I think what has been said already shows that that is not the case. At least given the general metaphysical picture of the world embodied in Scholastic philosophies like A-T, we have entirely independent reason for thinking that the divine nature is inscrutable. (Compare the negative theology of a Jewish Aristotelian like Maimonides, who was hardly motivated by a desire to provide a “smokescreen” behind which to protect Trinitarianism!) And as I pointed out in my recent post on Plotinus and the Trinity, if a rhetorical concern to defend the doctrine against skeptics at all costs were what motivated the Trinitarian theologian, he would have every motive to adopt something like the Neo-Platonic doctrine of the three hypostases as a way to “rationalize” it. And yet Trinitarians have generally resisted doing so.

The reason is precisely because such “rationalizing” moves have seemed to them not to be true to the content of the doctrine, and in particular not to be true to the core Trinitarian propositions alluded to above, as far as we can understand them. This, together with considerations about our natural knowledge of God of the sort just described, has quite reasonably led them to conclude that the doctrine is a “mystery” in the sense I have described in previous posts. One might disagree with this position, but there do not seem to be any grounds for dismissing it as insincere or rhetorically motivated. The comparison of the doctrine of the Trinity to quantum mechanics is a tired one, but still worth reemphasizing in this context: If empirical evidence can justifiably lead us to affirm the truth of a scientific theory that even many physicists claim we can only partially understand, why can’t divine revelation do something similar?

Finally, in the context of this final objection, Dale says: “Let me ask Ed what precisely about the Trinity formulas he finds to be a negative mystery. Take any statement which is regarded as expressing ‘the’ doctrine, such as: ‘God is three persons in one being’ – and say which terms are the ones which we can barely grasp the meaning of. Typically, following Augustine, people will focus on ‘persons’. But then in other contexts, it is pretty clear that they think of each of the Three as a self – something with knowledge and will.”

In response, I would say first of all that we need to be very cautious in applying terms like “self” to God. No doubt people associate all sorts of anthropomorphic imagery with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and of course, the Son in His human nature is indeed a “self” as we are. But applied to the divine nature, all such language must be understood in an analogous sense – as, of course, related terms like “knowledge” and “will” must be. And when it is understood that way, the anthropomorphisms drop away. There is in God something analogous to what knowledge is in us, something analogous to what will is in us, something analogous to what intellect is in us, and so forth. But it is not flatly the same as what knowledge, will, and intellect are in us – for one thing, given divine simplicity, God’s knowledge is His will which is His intellect, and nothing like that is true of us. Obviously that is difficult to grasp; but as I have said and as Dale has acknowledged, when one looks at these things through a Scholastic lens – and indeed, I would say, a classical theistic one more generally – God is already bound to be difficult for us to grasp even apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.

With regard to formulae like “three Persons in one substance,” then, I am inclined to say that all the terms are difficult, precisely because they too are being used analogically and in a way that must conform to the doctrine of divine simplicity. The “three” is particularly tricky in light of the latter; but the point is that it is a mistake to think that we should expect to be able to isolate one or two key expressions as the problematic ones, while the others are all clear as day. (All the same, it is a bit tendentious for Dale to insinuate that the mysterian claim is that we can “barely grasp” the meaning of the terms in question. Again, we’re not dealing here with nonsense syllables spoken by someone with a mouthful of food, where one or two sounds can just be made out as pieces of English – or Greek, or Latin – vocabulary. “We cannot fully comprehend X” does not entail “We can barely comprehend X.”)

To be sure, we can at least get to divine attributes like knowledge, will, and the like through natural reason. But our grasp of them is bound to be incomplete even once we’ve arrived at them. The difference from distinctively Trinitarian language about God is (as Aquinas says) that the Trinitarian language, unlike the other language, does not follow from our reasoning to God as cause of the world. And, again, the Trinitarian language is particularly difficult to grasp given divine simplicity (where divine simplicity does follow from our knowledge of God as cause of the world). But we are not in a situation where the language used to describe divine attributes like knowledge, will, etc. is completely transparent and only the Trinitarian language is difficult.

Here as elsewhere in our discussion – as, indeed, elsewhere in much contemporary debate between theologians generally, and between many theists and their atheistic opponents – I suspect we see reflected the gulf between the conceptions of God enshrined in classical theism and what Brian Davies has called “theistic personalism” (also known as “neo-theism”), where the latter embodies a more anthropomorphic conception of God, and for that reason a less mysterious one – though also, for that reason, a less truly divine one. Or so we A-T types would argue. But that is a gigantic topic all its own.

Anyway, I thank Dale for an interesting and useful exchange. I must correct a false impression he may have left, though: Contrary to what his chosen illustration implies, that is not the car I drove him around in back in grad school!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Oh sure - next you're going to deny that you fed me Scooby snacks!
    (More substantive reply later.)

  4. Hi Ed,

    Yeah, I do think there's a vast gulf between how we think about God, or rather, what sorts of gods we believe in. I take it that "theistic personalism" is the view that God is numerically identical to a perfect self. That is indeed what I hold to, but I'm surprised to see anyone characterize it as "neo". This is just the YHWH of the OT - the Father of the world, friend of Abe, carrying out his purposes in his creation, speaking, promising, chiding, and full of compassion yet also wrath, before the (first Jewish, then Christian) Platonists reinterpreted everything. Moreover, this view never passed away - the vast majority of confessing Christians think this way about God, while the so called "classical" view has always been confined to a tiny group of intellectuals.

    I think that your concern with "anthropomorphism" is overblown; those of us Christian philosophers who think of God as a perfect person/self (which is most of us, I think) don't hold that God is a human being. (Well, some do - those who identify Jesus and God!) We have a clear enough concept of a person which doesn't imply having a body, being a human, or being limited in the ways that we are. This is part of the off-the-shelf, universal concept of a god or a spirit.

    I don't think you answered my question about your 1-7. But I'm guessing that you think "Jesus is God" means that Jesus has the divine nature. If so, I'd want to know what was meant by "nature", but in any case, I think there's a tendency to read later metaphysical concerns into certain texts, and that in fact no such claim is implied or stated there. I have argued in print that the Bible does imply that Jesus and God are not numerically identical - which is very often what the "divinity of Christ" is taken to mean. One might grant this, and still hold that the NT implies that Jesus is "fully divine". This is much harder than is normally thought - the fathers seemed to have faked it, just claiming that we can straight up observe the typical workings of a divine nature in the life of Jesus - but, this is another conversation - and I have a feeling it'd be a complicated one, as you accept the Magisterium.

    Is it true that "via unaided reason we can know God only as cause of the world"? Doesn't Romans 1 suggest a somewhat wider range of truths?

    Re: "barely" grasping - I don't think that should be thought contentious - I find this emphasis in the "fathers". "Cannot fully comprehend" is clearly too weak for what they mean - that would fit someone who understood 99.9% of God's nature. Nor would that want to say that one can understand say 50% or even 10% of God's nature. (Yeah the numbers are artificial here, but you get my meaning.)

    Another big disagreement, I think, would involve your claim that the Son qua human is a self. I hold that this old qua-move is not reasonable... but I'll post on that some time. (Richard Cross and Tom Senor have pretty effectively examined it, I think - esp. the latter.)

    In sum, Ed is right - the disagreement re: "theistic personalism" vs. "classical theism" is more important and more fundamental. I freely confess that I don't have a good grasp of the philosophical attraction of Platonic theology; I wish that I did, and will work on it. Maybe I'll take a gander at Ed's posts on Plotinus.

  5. It's interesting to note that the idea of mystery invoked here is also relevant to a host of other issues. For example, it seems to me that open theists are typically very reluctant to allow or take seriously the mystery gambit when it comes to free will and foreknowledge, God's providence/sovereignty, divine aseity, etc. No doubt, the open theist is partially motivated by the following line: if doctrine D appears contradictory to S, then S is well within his rights to reject D.

    I'm somewhat sympathetic to that line as which is why the discussion of the nature of theological mystery is important.

    Thanks for a stimulating discussion guys.

  6. "There is, for example, the fact (as we A-T types see things, anyway) that via unaided reason we can know God only as cause of the world, and thus apart from divine revelation are limited in our knowledge of Him to what can be inferred from His being the world’s cause."

    But, via reason, we can know that God *is* the world's cause ... and that he is a person, not a force. I think that reason can also show us, as we contemplate the reality of morality, that God is a multiplicity of persons ... I just don't see this reasoning can show us that Gos is exactly three persons.

  7. Take 30 minutes and listen to this great interview with Bruce Hood. His ideas are challenging to supernaturalists and naturalists alike:


  8. sorry

  9. 30 minutes of largely armchair psychoanalysis and assumption doesn't do much for me, though he's a polite fellow.

    As to the OP: Thanks for this ongoing series, Ed. It's been pretty fascinating to see some of the philosophers I regularly follow discussing the trinity at this level of detail.

  10. "armchair psychoanalysis"

    Huh? Most of the interview discusses his empirical studies of children. Psychoanalysis is never even mentioned.

  11. No - most of the interview is about his interpretations, extrapolations, and armchair theorizing about the results of empirical studies. And that's where most of the armchair psychoanalysis comes in. It's like discussing the Bradley effect. On the one hand we have the empirical results: our polls said this, the election results were these, the recorded demographics were this, etc. On the other hand, we have the stories trying to make sense of the data - "Well, people had racist urges and didn't want to vote for a black man but didn't want to admit that to the pollster, so David Dinkins' poll numbers were high, but they voted against him in the secrecy of the voting booth." And that's the largely armchair psychoanalysis. Which is fine, but let's not pretend it's hard science, or even much of science at all.

    He also fails to make crucial distinctions between superstition and the supernatural, simplistically divides all thought into "scientific" (and therefore correct) and "supernatural" (and therefore incorrect), and more. I'm sympathetic to some of what he says or thinks, but like I said, it doesn't do much for me.

  12. "He also fails to make crucial distinctions between superstition and the supernatural"

    Good luck with that project. People with supernatural beliefs will label competing religions as superstitions. If one have no supernatural beliefs, then all religions are superstitions.

    I don't think Hood's use of the world is intended to be pejorative. As his work shows that superstitious thinking is ubiquitous in humans, even self-styled skeptics. For instance, my use of the word "luck" above exposes me to such a charge.

  13. I didn't bother listening to it. Aside from preferring to read and considering audio in general to be a waste of time, the glowing endorsement ("His ideas are challenging to supernaturalists and naturalists alike:") was enough to tell me that it would be as Crude describes it.

  14. Dr Feser,

    I have been struggling with the doctrine of divine simplicity and - while reading one of your other posts on the subject - had a bit of a revelation. This revelation helps my non-Catholic brain understand the concept better and I'd like to throw it out there for comments and criticism:

    It came to me that God's simplicity is directly tied to his infinity. Since God is infinitely good, there can be no part of him that is not good. Since God has infinite power, there can be no part of him that is not power... (and etc. for any and all attributes we can ascribe to God)

    This concept of infinity ultimately leads to the conclusion that every 'part' of God must contain everything that he is; therefore no 'part' of God is distinguishable from any other; therefore God has no parts.

    Am I getting warm?

  15. "Good luck with that project. People with supernatural beliefs will label competing religions as superstitions. If one have no supernatural beliefs, then all religions are superstitions."

    The first claim is false - competing religious beliefs are compared and contrasted by religious believers without resorting to "that's superstitious". See Ed's very own description of Plotinus' writing for an example.

    The second claim falls prey to a similar misconception. If you're going to claim that everyone can come up with differing depictions of 'superstitious' claims, I'll point out that "natural" and "supernatural" are open to the same bickering. In which case whether or not a person (even non-religious) has "supernatural" beliefs really depends on who's asked.

    "I don't think Hood's use of the world is intended to be pejorative. As his work shows that superstitious thinking is ubiquitous in humans, even self-styled skeptics."

    As I said, I found some things to agree with in the interview. But mostly it's just one guy spouting off, uncut and without the qualifications and detail that would be needed to make it interesting. That he (and seemingly, you) doesn't even attempt to discern between superstitious and supernatural - and he really does treat anything 'superstitious/supernatural' as 'wrong', and anything 'scientific' as 'right' - just illustrates the problem.

    Let me put it another way. The data's pretty interesting. The open speculation, less so. That's all.

  16. Daniel Smith: "Am I getting warm?"

    It goes without saying that I don't speak for Mr Feser, but I think his answer will be "Yes."

    Also, I'd say it's not your "non-Catholic brain" at issue (I'm not Catholic, either), but rather that the ideas are so different from the modernist milieu into which we all have been reared.

  17. Hey, I'm Dave Roberts and wanted to thank Mr. Feser for writing "Aquinas" because I finally found my vocation (to the priesthood!) and before the diocese sends me to college in Minnesota this fall I need to get ready for philosophy (I'm 25 and know nothing of it other than G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O'Connor were Thomists) so this is just great. Great post!

  18. Daniel,

    Actually, since God is simple He has no parts, so that isn't quite right.


    That is very gratifying -- thank you and God bless!

  19. Dale,

    Presumably you would agree that God does not really have e.g. a footstool. Or feet, for that matter, at least not apart from the Incarnation. If so, then you agree that the anthropomorphic language in the Bible needs to be treated very carefully -- that we need to distinguish between metaphor, analogy, and other ways of using language, and that when we get clear on all this it is going to turn out that not everything the Bible says about God really means what it might seem to mean at first glance.

    OK, so far so good, I think you'll agree. But in that case, isn't it a bit silly to pretend that the classical theist has somehow hijacked Christianity and perverted the plain meaning of scripture? At the very least, shouldn't you allow -- at least if you grant what I said in the previous paragraph -- that classical theism is one plausible way to interpret the Bible?

    Mind you, I am not playing the ecumenism card here. I am not saying both of our views are equally good, let many flowers bloom, etc. As I've made clear, I think classical theism is in fact required by orthodoxy, certainly from a Catholic POV. So my objection isn't that you're not being nice in implying that my view is contrary to scripture. The point is rather that it seems to me that that move isn't open to you if you're going to admit in any event that not everything in scripture can be taken at face value. For if it can't be taken at face value, why rule out classical theism as one way to read it?

    What this shows, I think, is that it isn't just the classical theism vs. theistic personalism debate that lurks in teh background of our discussion, but also the Catholic vs. Protestant debate. I would say: Look, you're implicitly committed already to the view that scriptural language about God can't be (or at least can't all be) taken at face value. So the sola scriptura "Back to the Bible!" stuff ain't gonna fly. Some extra-biblical criteria are needed. Indeed, you also implicitly acknowledge this when you criticize certain construals of the biblcial texts on philosophical grounds. But in that case, since we're both still claiming to base our positions on revelation, we need to get clear on how revelation works. We Catholics already hold that revelation includes more than the Bible -- it incorporates Tradition too, and Bible and Tradition as as read through the living Magisterim of the Church, inclusive of the councils, papal decrees, the hole ball of wax.

  20. (continued)

    THe "But the biblical language says..." move, then, is not only applied selectively by your side (or so it seems to me) but is question-begging in any event, since it simply assumes, without demonstrating, the falsity of a Catholic approach to revelation. And when we look at things through the lens of that approach we find that classical theism is not only allowed, but required.

    There's no way we're going to settle this in a combox, of course. The point is just to make it clear that there's a lot more going on behind the scenes of these debates that meets the eye, and that we can subtly beg the question without realizing it if we don;t keep this in mind.

    Re: why classical theism should be regarded as crucial, that's a big topic, but in the posts on Paley and theistic personalism I linked to in the main post, I try to spell out one reason why it is so important, viz. that a "God" conceived of in any other terms is not clearly distinct from the natural world broadly construed, and thus neither worthy of worship nor identifiable with the God of the Bible. As I point out in one of those posts, a wise naturalist would not worry too much about whether a non-classical theistic "god" of some sort exists -- some of the ancient atomists were happy to do so, and just regarded "gods" as unusually elevated natural beings. To show why the God of the Bible is incomparable to the "gods" of the pagans requires conceiving of Him in classical theistic terms -- or so classical theists have always argued.

  21. Groan. My goodness what a lot of typos there are in all that. It's just a combox, I know, but painful to see all the same!

  22. E.Feser: "Actually, since God is simple He has no parts, so that isn't quite right."

    Mr Feser, Daniel made a point of putting 'parts' in quotes.

  23. Dr. Feser,

    Actually, since God is simple He has no parts, so that isn't quite right.

    Yes, but my struggle was in understanding the "since God is simple" part. As llion said, I put 'parts' in quotes since I was making the case for simplicity as it pertains to potential 'parts' of God. Since any potential 'part' of God would have to contain everything he is - God has no distinguishable parts.

    This line of reasoning makes divine simplicity intelligible to me.

    Thanks for noticing me though!

  24. Daniel Smith,

    I think that your intuition is quite correct. Thomas Aquinas did not emphasise God's infinity so much and took His simplicity as the basic attribute; but others like Scotus used a very similar line of thought like yours to show how simplicity follows from infinity - in Scotus's case even given that there is certain "formal non-identity" between the attributes and the essnece in God.

  25. Maybe this is child's play, but I could never understand how "God has a son" and "God does not have a son" can both be true.