Soteriological Sidebar: Trinitarian Personhood Contra Kevin’s Essence of God

Kevin has offered up some soteriological cogitations in reply to my last post. I will reply to his post from the soteriological standpoint we’ve been pursuing later this week, and if possible, combine with it my reply to any forthcoming posts by Darren. But in Kevin’s reply he refers to my descriptions of God’s person vis a vis his nature as an “assertion of an impossible ‘superessential personhood.’” There’s other talk of “avoiding rational antinomies by fleeing rationality altogether” and of seeking “to escape such logical contradictions by asserting even more of them” and so forth. Kevin’s after all, is not merely a rational God, but a God who happily conforms and confines himself to logical categories.

One is very tempted to be a bit snarky here and say that the Church has never known such a God, but, alas, that would be saying too little and too much, an assertion Kevin will likely find incomprehensible. It is saying too much in that while God cannot be confined or conformed to logical categories, since God is far beyond human knowing, God is, after all, the font of all truth, and as such does not actually commit logical fallacies or contradictions, nor can such be truthfully predicated of him (as long as the “him” we’re speaking of is the Personal Trinity, but more on that in a moment). But it is saying too little because, while it is true that God cannot be conformed or confined to mere logical categories, in point of fact, God is, in his essence and his Person ultimately incomprehensible. That is to say, what can be known of God not only does not begin to adequately treat of God, but even that which is truly known itself exceeds the human ability to comprehend.

But with those provisos, we do know God in ways that are true and real, although partial and never fully comprehended by us. And since my soteriological reflections depend in large part on the Personhood of God, and of the Second Person of the Trinity, I thought it important to execute a sidebar here to clarify my own contentions and dispel Kevin’s mischaracterization of those contentions as irrational and illogical.

Part of the difficulty is that Kevin and I come from two different traditions. He has accepted the Augustinian tradition, handed down through the Reformed theology he has espoused, while I accept the tradition of the Cappadocians which has come down through what is somewhat mistakenly called the Eastern Church.

One of the seminal texts on the Trinity, for Christians East and West, is St. Gregory the Theologian’s first theological oration on the Son (Oration XXIX, the third theological oration), especially chapters 2-3. Here St. Gregory articulates what is the standard Orthodox understanding of God: the monarchical Trinity. That is to say, the Godhead receives its essence, its divinity, from the Person of the Father. From all eternity the Father begets the Son, and from all eternity, the Son is begotten of the Father. From all eternity the Father sends forth the Spirit, and from all eternity, the Spirit proceeds from the Father. That is to say, the Father is the single cause of the Godhead. We predicate of the Son a positive: from all eternity he is being begotten. We predicate of the Spirit a positive: from all eternity he is proceeds from the Father. The Son has his origin in the Father, as the Spirit has his origin in the Father. But when it comes to the Person of the Father, what we predicate of him is a negative: the Father himself is unoriginate, he is unbegotten, he does not proceed, and this from all eternity. But St. Gregory notes that in speaking of the Father as the Cause of the Trinity, we do not diminish the Son or the Spirit, for in this case temporal associations of cause and effect do not apply. The begetting of the Son and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit are from all eternity without end. There never was a time when such begetting or such proceeding has not happened, nor will there ever be a time. Here, if we may so speak, cause and effect are simultaneous. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are eternal; there never was a when when they were not, nor will there ever be. Furthermore, since the Father begets the Son in eternal generation without mediation, the Son is, in his Person, what the Father is, and since the Father sends forth the Spirit in eternal procession without mediation, the Spirit, is, in his Person, what the Father is. The unity of the Godhead is eternally preserved and guaranteed by the Father who is without beginning or end. And the plurality of the Godhead is eternally generated from the Father who eternally begets the Son, who is eternally begotten of the Father, and from the Father who eternally sends forth the Spirit, who is eternally proceeding from the Father. The Son is not the Father, because the Son is begotten and the Father is unbegotten. The Spirit is not the Father, because the Spirit proceeds and the Father does not. In the distinction of Persons there is no subordinationism as to essence, for the essence shared by all is that of the Father, and therefore is the same for all. Furthermore, the Father gives of himself in eternal love by begetting the Son eternally, and by sending forth the Spirit eternally. The Son and the Spirit each receive and reciprocate the Father’s self-giving love, the Son by being begotten and the Spirit by proceeding. The unity of the Godhead preserves the Son and the Spirit from an essential subordinationism, while the plurality of the Persons preserves the self-sacrificial love.

I have spoken of this Trinitarian conception at some length because it is this Trinitarian doctrine that is the foundation for my contention that God is fundamentally a Person, and which Personhood exceeds the divine essence. The Father is the cause of the Godhead, and that cause is a Person. The divine essence is, indeed, predicated on unity, but this unity is surpassed by a tri-unity of Persons. That is to say, that God exists is predicated on a simple eternal fact: the Father begets the Son and sends forth the Spirit.

Christianity quite literally does not know what it means to speak of a God whose fundamental nature is one of essence. This god is the Plotinian god of essential necessity; who creates not out of a free act of love, but out of the essential necessity of an overflowing ousia. But with regard to the Trinitarian God, all that God is, even in his essence, insofar as he is, is Personal. One cannot speak of God’s essence apart from the Person of the Father. We have never known God except as Father, which Father was revealed fully and completely (though not fully and completely comprehended by us) in the Son by the Spirit. This is not to say that we cannot speak about God except as Person. When we speak of God as one, we are speaking of God’s essence. We do not worship three Gods, after all. But insofar as we can speak of God’s essence, it is only from the standpoint of the revelation to us of the Father in the Son by the Holy Spirit. We do not read, “In the beginning was the One,” after all, but “In the beginning was the Word.” Nor do we read of the One, who is the “exact expression of his substance,” but we read of the Son who is the “radiance of his glory, and the exact expression of his nature.”

Thus, if Kevin wants to uphold his Augustinian scholasticism and the God about whom he claims “even if we always have God’s persons in mind, we must either speak of them according to their nature or we must say nothing at all,” he may do so, but I may well be suspicious that he can know anything of God’s nature a priori. And if he cannot, then he must indeed, remain silent.

That being said, then, it will become clear that the predication of superessential personhood to the Trinity is not only not the “assertion of an impossible” that Kevin claims, but is, indeed, a rationally, even logically, necessary assertion. Only one who would equate God’s Person and essence could find this an impossibility. But such an identification of God’s Person and essence is impossible in light of Trinitarian realities. That is to say, if God were his essence, there is nothing about God’s essence that would demand a Trinity of Persons.

Think of how we speak of God’s qualities. We, rightly I hasten to say, predicate of all the members of the Trinity the singular qualities we consider. So, when we say that God is omniscient, we predicate this quality of all Persons of the Trinity; so, too, for omnipotence, and omnipresence, and omnibenevolence, eternality, holiness, and so forth. But there is nothing in any of these shared qualities from which a Trinity of Persons necessarily arises—and if God is his essence, it is necessary for a Trinity of Persons to arise, insofar as we predicate of God a Trinity of Persons. In what way would holiness necessitate the eternal begetting of the Son, or the eternal procession of the Spirit?

Ah, you say, but the fundamental quality we predicate of God is love, and thus, love would necessitate the Trinity. On the contrary, it would not. It would necessitate at least a di-unity, with the Lover and the Beloved, but there would be nothing necessitating the enhypostatization of their love as a constitutive third person of the Godhead. The necessary enhypostatization predicated of such an essence, Love, would be satisfied with the Lover and Beloved. But there would be no need to further hypstosize the Love as yet another Beloved, and there would be no way to distinguish this third hypostasis from the other Beloved. (And this, it seems to me, is the unique failure of the filioque as a relation of opposition.)

But when we speak of the Trinity, essential unity is already predicated in the monarche of the Father. Starting, if you will, with the hypostases, or, more accurately, the hypostasis of the Father, preserves both the revelation of the Trinity to us–which we could never know by way of rational categories–and the essential unity necessitated by the revelation of the Father in the Son by the Spirit. And when we speak of the essential unity of the Godhead, which is preserved in the monarchy of the Father, this essential unity is superseded by the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit from all eternity in a tri-unity. Thus the essential unity becomes a superessential tri-unity by virtue of the Father’s eternal free act of love in begetting the Son and sending forth the Spirit.

In my previous post, I noted that beginning from God’s essential qualities rather than from the Trinitarian Persons, leads one to rational antinomies that ultimately collapse such a theology in upon itself. One ends up with irresoluble oppositions that deny of God one or more of those essential qualities and thus deny God his existence. To this Kevin replied, “In short, these antimonies lose their force if you define the terms according to what God has revealed about himself rather than according to some supposed universal standard.” Here Kevin, whether he realizes it or not, has conceded my argument, albeit in a roundabout way. For what has been revealed to us of God is his Trinitarian Person, not a list of essential qualities.

But if the Godhead is a Trinity of Persons, nothing we can predicate of God will be able to be limited to rational categories. That is to say, even to the degree that we can speak of God’s essential qualities, qualities which, by definition would inhere in all three Persons of the Trinity by virtue of their consubstantiality, what we could say of God would be superseded by his Triune Person. If we speak of God’s unity, we are already confronted with a suprarational tri-unity. If we speak of God’s love, we are already confronted with eternal begetting and being begotten, with eternal proceeding and sending forth, which eternality cannot in any way be approximated by our reason without rational failure. Even our analogies of begetting and procession do not in any way make comprehensible the relations of Father and Son and Father and Spirit.

So for Kevin to object that “if we’re left preserving inherent paradox or, even worse, avoiding rational antinomies by fleeing rationality altogether, then any chances of coherent discussion are pretty well shot. There’s really nothing meaningful left to affirm,” he is merely objecting to a rational category that surely even he himself affirms, “God is greater than that which can be thought.”

But if God is a Person, then he cannot be known by way of rational categories. No syllogism will grant us knowledge of God. A Personal God cannot but be known through love. This is why the biblical, and Orthodox, understanding of the knowledge of God locates such realities in the heart. Even if one speaks of the instrumentality of the nous in knowing God, such a knowing, the prayerful theologians tell us, must “descend” into the heart. The God of rational categories is too near the god of the philosophers, too near the syllogistic god, and this god is not the Christian God.

Kevin’s resistance to this essential principle of the Trinity—that God is beyond human comprehension—is clearly in evidence when he rejects my kataphatic and apophatic assertions by contending my saying “God is all-good” and “God is not all-good” are “logical contradictions.” Unfortunately, it appears that Kevin thinks we can take such concepts as “all-goodness” and comprehend them. For the only way that the phrases “God is all-good” and “God is not all-good” are contradictory is if, in fact, we a) comprehensively understand what it means to speak of God’s “all-goodness” and that in so understanding b) we predicate the same meaning in both sentences. But, in fact, it is a fundamental principle of theology, at least in the historic Church, that whatever meaningful assertions we can make of God in light of his revelation to us in Christ by the Spirit, those assertions can never precisely encapsulate all that we could ever know of God and simultaneously would always be surpassed by the reality of who God is. Thus, if we can never fully know what it means to predicate of God that he is “all-good,” then we can never logically contradict ourself in claiming that God is “not all-good” since we can never know whether or not such terms as “all-good” have been used equivocally. In other words, the logical contradiction which Kevin charges me with depends on the fact that we have comprehended what “all-good” means with respect to God, and therefore are using “all-good” univocally in our seemingly opposite assertions.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m sympathetic to Kevin’s resistance to my claims here. After all, if we allow rational antinomies, even on the basis of legitimate theological realities, do we not simply set the stage for any snake-oil theologian to make truly contradictory or un-Christian claims about God and then wave off such problems with appeal to “apophatic truth”? I’m afraid that whether we allow them or not, the unprayerful theologians are already in our midst hawking their bitter wares.

Furthermore, though God is beyond our comprehension, though none of our terms used of God, even those which have proven to guard us against heresy, can exhaustively communicate God’s Person to us, we can, and indeed, must speak meaningfully and truthfully of God. The Scriptures, the Ecumenical Councils, the Divine Liturgy, the writings of the Fathers are all testimony to the need for careful articulation of what we can know, in our limited way, of God.

But concern for theological truth can, itself, be misguided. Arius thought to preserve the dignity of the Father. Sabellius thought to preserve the unity of God. Barlaam thought to preserve God’s transcendence. And though I think Kevin both genuine and careful in his own articulation and intent to preserve the sovereignty of God, and that it is meaningful so to speak of God, I do not think his subsuming of the Godhead into an essence or nature helpful, and it is potentially heretical.

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