Analytic Theology and the Doctrine of the Trinity – By Edward Brooks

Edward Brooks on Hasker’s Metaphysics & the Tri-personal God

William Hasker, Metaphysics and the Tri-personal God, Oxford University Press, 2013, 273pp., $99
William Hasker, Metaphysics and the Tri-personal God, Oxford University Press, 2013, 273pp., $99
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What has analytic philosophy to do with the doctrine of the Trinity? ‘As little as possible’ would likely be the response of some contemporary theologians. Given the history of analytic philosophy — a twentieth century movement that developed a rigorously scientific approach to logic and often declared talk of God to be meaningless — perhaps this skepticism is understandable. Can the approach to philosophy that was championed by the likes of A. J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell be a fruitful conversation partner in a discussion concerning the nature of God? William Hasker’s Metaphysics and the Tri-personal God is part of the growing movement of analytic philosophical theology, which argues that it can.

Hasker presents a ‘social trinitarian’ understanding of the Trinity which borrows Cornelius Plantinga’s understanding of ‘Father, Son, and Spirit as distinct centers of knowledge, will, love, and action … persons in some full sense of the term.’ This approach clearly raises the question of how to formulate divine unity. How can three divine persons, each a personal agent in their own right, be truly understood in the words of the Athanasian creed: ‘Not three eternals but one eternal … not three uncreated beings or three infinite beings but one uncreated and one infinite … not three almighty beings but one almighty … not three gods but one God.’ His answer won’t win universal agreement, of course, but Hasker engages this question head on. We shall come back to Hasker’s constructive proposal below. Before we do, it is worth us reflecting on what some might consider a contradiction in terms: an analytic theological approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. How did Hasker end up here?

The emerging movement of ‘analytic theology’ is an offshoot of the success of Christian analytic philosophers over the last thirty years. Thanks to the likes of William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and a host of others, much contemporary analytic philosophy has a distinctly theistic edge. The emergence of analytic theology represents an extension of this movement. It is instantiated, amongst other places, in the online Journal of Analytic Theology and also in the Oxford Studies in Analytic Theology series (edited by Michael Rea and Oliver Crisp) of which Hasker’s volume on the Trinity is the first. Rea and Crisp summarize well:

Analytic theology utilizes the tools and methods of contemporary analytic philosophy for the purposes of constructive Christian theology, paying attention to the Christian tradition and development of doctrine.

Hasker’s book on the doctrine of the Trinity is squarely in this analytic tradition. His focus is on the Trinity in terms of the metaphysical ‘three-in-oneness problem,’ ‘The problem of what it means to say that there are three trinitarian persons but only one God.’ Hasker does not claim that this is the only show in town when it comes to trinitarian theology, but he does contend that it is not one that we can afford to miss. This isn’t controversial in the history of the church but it seems to be in need of restatement. If we leave aside the concern to coherently understand and clearly express Christian doctrine, and if we leave aside the task of defending doctrinal truth, what is left of theology? When it comes to the Trinity, if the Christian claim that there are three divine persons but only one God cannot be understood at all, or expressed in a way that is free from bare contradiction, the distinction between divine incomprehensibility and unintelligibility breaks down. In the terminology of Francis Turretin, the Trinity may ultimately be incomprehensible but it cannot be ‘incompossible’ (unable to be coherently brought to mind).

Hasker happily acknowledges that there is much more to be said about the Trinity than he takes to be his task. The aim of his book is not to assert analytic theological domination but catalyze greater theological integration. In this regard, Hasker has a second three-in-oneness problem in view. Here the issue is less metaphysical and more methodological. Systematic, historical, and philosophical theology, Hasker rightly notes, have all been working away at the doctrine of the Trinity for the last half-century. Over that time, however, they haven’t much been talking to each other. Hasker is eager to contribute to a uniting of the ways: “Ideally speaking, the results produced by these three movements in trinitarian theology should converge, with the best results of the historical and philosophical studies incorporated into an enriched theological synthesis.”

Appropriately for a book on the Trinity, Hasker’s account is laid out in three sections. Each section is made up of ten short chapters, which function as distinct steps in the argument. The focus is philosophical but Hasker attempts to practice the integrative approach that he commends, outlining his constructive proposal only after interacting with contemporary discussions in historical and systematic theology. The first part focuses on the foundations of trinitarian theology in Scripture and in the pro-Nicene Patristic formulations of the fourth century. Hasker unashamedly asserts the importance of historic Christian orthodoxy, arguing that the fourth-century Fathers are ‘the giants on whose shoulders we need to stand.’ The analogy is apt since it illustrates both the stature of the pro-Nicenes in Hasker’s framework and his assertion that our contemporary understanding should reach higher than theirs.

Turning his attention to the fourth century, Hasker draws on recent developments in historical theology (especially the work of Lewis Ayres) to argue for the emergence of a broad pro-Nicene consensus rather than a single Nicene position. On this view pro-Nicene theology is not exhausted by any single creed, and there is no clear-cut separation between Latin and Greek positions. Hasker focuses his attention on one key figure from the East (Gregory of Nyssa) and West (Augustine), seeking to further the argument that on his minimal definition of ‘social trinitarianism’ — namely that the trinitarian persons are persons in ‘some full sense of the term’ — the pro-Nicene theologians can be counted as ‘pro-social’. There are some important qualifications to note here which give a sense of what Hasker’s position entails: i. The ‘pro-social’ label is used intentionally, recognizing that to label the pro-Nicene Fathers ‘social trinitarians’ would be anachronistic; ii. Hasker’s weak version of ‘social trinitarianism’ affirms the notion of perichoresis (the mutual indwelling of the divine persons) but doesn’t depend on it to do the work of sustaining the concept of divine unity; iii. It is possible (but not necessary) on Hasker’s position to allow an analogical element in the use of ‘person’; iv. Many ‘social trinitarians’ are opposed to the idea that the divine essence is numerically one, preferring to talk merely in terms of generic oneness in order to protect the individuality of the divine persons. This is not, however, a necessary entailment of the position that Hasker defends.

Theologians classing themselves as ‘social trinitarians’ might fairly respond to Hasker by asking what of their position his caveats leave behind. As is made clear in the book, Hasker has concerns about the stronger ‘social trinitarianism’ of Moltmann and Zizioulas, but his purpose is not to disallow a stricter definition of terms. His aim seems to be to make weak ‘social trinitarianism’ a broad enough category than anyone wanting to affirm that the persons of the Trinity are persons in the modern meaning of the term can join his club. On such a division of the theological house, those on the wrong side of Hasker’s line are revealed as those wedded to Hellenistic philosophical assumptions that need to be brought up to date. As the argument progresses, divine simplicity (the doctrine of classical theism that God is radically unlike creation in not being composed of parts) is unveiled as the Platonic dinosaur in the Patristic room. By concluding that the doctrine of divine simplicity advances God’s unity in a way that is “logically incoherent” and “devoid of biblical warrant,” Hasker makes room to take up pro-Nicene theology without it. He argues that, “A fundamental revision of the simplicity doctrine is the only way to restore coherence.” On this revised footing, Hasker argues that the coherence of pro-Nicene trinitarianism is maintained and the Patristic foundation of trinitarian theology can be appropriated as ‘pro-social.’ This is Hasker’s proposal, to appropriate Nicene theology “in light of the assumptions and questions that are viable for us today.”

It is at this point that the theological warning lights begin to flash. If Hasker’s constructive development of trinitarian doctrine relies on progress in philosophy, it seems to imply that Christian orthodoxy is reliant on the assumptions of Hellenistic philosophy for the substantive content of its theological positions. The doctrine of divine simplicity has been viewed historically as a core commitment of Nicene orthodoxy and yet Hasker’s modern philosophical understanding leads him to deny it. On Hasker’s model of philosophical progress, who is to say what other aspects of the doctrine of God will need to be updated as time goes on? It is one thing to explicate Christian doctrine in terms that are comprehensible in a given time and place. It is quite another to update the substantive content of theology on the grounds of what is “viable for us today” The modern story of progress that is in the background at this point is not firm ground on which a theologian can stand. Even from a philosophical perspective the story of progress seems an unwise narrative to adopt. It is far from clear that philosophical assumptions naturally improve over time — the recent turn to the virtues tradition in moral philosophy and epistemology is evidence that the progress of philosophy is not necessarily linear.

"Trinity in Dark Tones" by Alek Rapoport. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
“Trinity in Dark Tones” by Alek Rapoport. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The second part of the book surveys contemporary accounts of the doctrine of the Trinity, both systematic (Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Zizioulas) and philosophical (Leftow, Van Inwagen, Brower and Rea, Craig, Swinburne, Yandell). Hasker is positive about the prospect of contemporary trinitarian formulations that “preserve the core commitments and affirmations of Nicene trinitarianism” but take into account the way philosophical assumptions have developed over the centuries. He begins his analysis with Barth, whose placement of the doctrine of the Trinity at the head of his Church Dogmatics revived serious theological investigation into trinitarian theology. Unsurprisingly, Hasker finds significant problems with the ‘anti-social’ formulations of Barth and Rahner. For different reasons he also objects to the ‘social trinitarian’ positions of Moltmann and Zizioulas. ‘Moltmann faces serious difficulties because of his attempt to use the same concept of perichoresis to express both the union of the trinitarian Persons with one another, and their union with created persons.’ Zizioulas runs into trouble because of his conception of ‘absolute divine freedom’, which makes even the nature of God the result of the Father’s decisions.

Where then to turn? Hasker offers clear direction: ‘If we do wish to get a better grip on this crucial topic, it may be that the best we can do is to turn to recent work on the Trinity by analytic philosophers.’ Hasker calls on six analytic approaches. Leftow’s understanding of three divine ‘life-streams’ is followed by Van Inwagen’s suggestion of relative identity, adapted by Brower and Rea in their proposal of sameness in number without identity. Three more obviously ‘social trinitarian’ positions follow from Craig (one divine soul with multiple sets of faculties) Swinburne (three ‘created’ divine persons) and Yandell (the Trinity as a complex bearer of properties). Hasker’s summaries in part two are an invaluable resource for anyone wanting to survey the scene of contemporary trinitarian theology. He highlights positive aspects in each formulation but concludes, unsurprisingly, that he finds none to be entirely adequate.

Part III is Hasker’s own constructive proposal in response to the trinitarian ‘three-in-oneness problem.’ He begins with a methodological interlude regarding the possibility of philosophical construction when it comes to the doctrine of the Trinity. On one hand, Hasker is positive about the role of modern philosophy. He argues strongly that it has much to contribute to our theological understanding, not least by bringing up to date the philosophical assumptions of the pro-Nicene theologians. On the other hand, however, he is more circumspect. Philosophers should ‘tread a bit softly,’ he cautions, remembering the necessarily analogical nature of philosophical language when applied to the Trinity. Hasker is trying to hold a line here between modern analytic philosophy and theological orthodoxy. In practice, however, the assumptions of the former seem to take precedence. The possibility of analytic theology relies on the ability to draw a distinction between the tools and content of analytic philosophy and to employ the former without importing the latter. There is no reason that this distinction cannot be made such that analytic philosophy can serve as ancila theologiae but Hasker takes a more speculative and substantively philosophical approach. Hasker’s method needs to be further reformed such that philosophy takes a genuinely ministerial position.

What of Hasker’s social trinitarian understanding itself? The way in which Hasker interweaves methodological discussion into his account of the Trinity means that his proposal is important in two ways: It demands consideration in its own right as a formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, and it also acts as a case study of the philosophico-theological approach he is eager to commend.

Hasker argues that each of the persons is God in that each instantiates ‘a single trope of deity,’ that is a single concrete divine nature. To this must be added his central ‘social trinitarian’ claim that the divine persons are persons in some full sense of the modern usage of the term. That is to say, each divine person is ‘a distinct center of knowledge, will, love, and action.’ Hasker affirms both the doctrines of the divine processions and perichoresis, but the work of explaining the unity of the Godhead depends on the metaphysical notion of constitution. By way of illustration he directs his readers to consider how a statue is constituted by a lump of marble, or a flag from a piece of cloth, such that the ‘is’ of constitution is distinct from the ‘is’ of identity. It is by means of constitution that Hasker delivers on his earlier promise “to provide another account of the ‘unity relation’ between the persons and the nature that for the ancients was provided by their doctrine of divine simplicity.” Applying this relation to God, Hasker argues that,

The constituted kind is divine trinitarian person; the constituting kind is divine mind/soul or concrete divine nature. The divine nature constitutes the divine trinitarian persons when it sustains simultaneously three divine life-streams, each life-stream including cognitive, affective and volitional states.

Is Hasker’s proposal successful? It is certainly a bold move to call on the notion of constitution as not only an analogy but a substantive metaphysical account of divine three-in-oneness. Hasker argues that his formulation is replacing divine simplicity as a unity relation, but he seems to overlook the fact that divine simplicity was not intended as a strictly philosophical account of God’s essence. For the pro-Nicenes and the theological orthodoxy that followed them, simplicity and aseity (the divine attribute of independent self-existence) belong together. They are joined in an understanding that asserts the incomprehensibility of God’s essence considered in itself and so places important limits on metaphysical speculation concerning the divine nature. If we are to hold on to divine incomprehensibility — a doctrine that Hasker defends — there is an important distinction to be maintained between a position that is advanced as a theological analogy and one that is intended as a substantive metaphysical account. Insofar as Hasker’s position is intended as the latter (and that is the way he presents it) there remains a significant amount of work to be done before his speculative metaphysics should be accepted and taught as orthodox theology.

To be fair, Hasker’s book is doing much more than simply advancing his own metaphysical account and his chapter on ‘Constitution and the Trinity’ takes up only six pages. It is not surprising that questions remain. Nonetheless, remain they do. Here are some of mine: i. Can the spatio-temporal features of the constitution relation allow its application as a substantive metaphysical explanation when it comes to the immense and eternal God? ii. Can the relation between constituting kind and constituted kind adequately do the work of holding together God’s threeness and oneness in a way that preserves the theological understanding of God as essentially trinitarian? If the divine nature is conceived as the constituting kind and the persons as constituted, then it would seem that the divine nature can be conceived apart from the existence of any divine person. So is God truly three? On the other hand, if the persons are ‘distinct centers of knowledge, will, love, and action … persons in some full sense of the term’ is their existence as constituted strong enough grounds for divine unity? Is God truly one? Hasker concedes that the notion of constitution is stretched under the load:

Our previous conceptions are put under strain in efforts to understand the Trinity, so conceptual modifications are not unexpected. I admit, nevertheless, that the application of the constitution relation to the Trinity would go more smoothly were no such modification required.

How are we to take this concession? If it is an appeal to divine incomprehensibility then the constitution relation could perhaps stand as an analogy. A stronger conception of divine incomprehensibility would also challenge the philosophical grounds for Hasker’s dismissal of divine simplicity. Insofar as Hasker rejects simplicity and affirms constitution as a metaphysical explanation, however, the strain on his account remains.

Hasker’s advocacy of ‘social-trinitarianism’ rests on modern philosophy updating presuppositions of historic trinitarian theology that it finds to be in error. If divine simplicity is incoherent to modern philosophy should we not accept the possibility that modern philosophy has illumined a logical fallacy in pre-modern trinitarian theology? It seems to me that Hasker’s philosophical assumptions drive his project at this point. Analytic theology seeks to appropriate the tools of modern philosophy but Hasker’s metaphysical speculation seems to also appropriate some of the content. The problem is not with the analytic method of his theology but with the modern philosophical content. Perhaps we need to go back to go forward? Might not the modern concern with divine simplicity (along most notably with the doctrine of immutability) indicate not a failure of pre-modern logic but an indication that pre-modern theology had a differently configured understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology than the one that Hasker is eager to advance? Hasker’s advocacy of both theological orthodoxy and philosophical humility are spot on. They should serve as guides for the ongoing debate that will doubtless follow from Hasker’s important contribution to our contemporary understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity.