Trinitarian Metaphysics

This has little to do with brains and minds, but I have a student writing a paper on it, and it behooves me to understand what he is talking about.

According to Catholic orthodoxy, God consists of three different Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  How can that be?  Are they the same thing or three different things? 

If they are the same thing, then they have the same properties (by the indiscernibility of identicals).  But based on what the Bible says, they seem to have different properties.  For instance, sometimes the Son speaks to the Father, which suggests that they are doing different things at different times.  If they have different properties, then they are different things (by the contrapositive of the indiscernibility of identicals).  But this conclusion is polytheistic heresy from a Catholic standpoint.

Is there any other way out of this?  Perhaps they partially overlap: they have a common part (a unique divine essence?) but they also have distinct parts (e.g., the Son has his mortal incarnation as a part unique to him). Then we could say that they are “the same God” in the sense of sharing the same divine essence as a common part, but “different Persons” in the sense that they also have their own different parts with different properties.  At the moment, this is the only solution that makes sense to me.

Would this solution be remotely acceptable to the Catholic Church?  Does anyone know what the Church’s official view on this is?  What about other Christian denominations?


  1. Malcolm

    Wow. Sorry to be so blunt, but what a pithy display of the uselessness of modern analytical philosophy and the deep poverty of knowledge of religious history now prevalent throughout academia.

    See the various journals on the history of Christian theology, r see the literature on comparative religious systems, for starters. Move on to the large literatures on the evolution of religious systems, cognition, and cosmology. For a 20th century attempt to blend theological and scientific language, read Teilhard de Chardin. For a scientific approach to creation and dualism, read John Wheeler’s “Law Without Law.” For a modern incarnation of trinitarian thought, consider Shannon’s Communication Theory.

  2. If by ‘part’ you mean something mereological in the ordinary sense, it would not be (the divine substance cannot be partitioned). But if you mean that each divine Person is a unique property, distinct from the others, which involves both sharing a divine nature with the others and doing so in a way distinct from the way the others do, that’s getting much closer.

    The Catholic Church has tended in general to be agnostic about the particular way to lay out the Trinity and confined itself to establishing a common vocabulary and ruling out things that are not acceptable (and this is not, I think, confined to the Catholic Church). But a view that has had a great deal of influence and acceptance East and West is found in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On”>”>On Not Three Gods, which is also a lovely model of philosophical analysis on the subject. It reads a bit oddly in parts, because Gregory is much more of a Platonist than most people these days; part of the point of the argument is to note that on a particular Platonic analysis of natures, something logically like what is described in the Trinity is in fact unsurprising: you can analyze everything in such terms (including Peter, Paul, and John, distinct persons with a shared humanity). Logically there is no problem; where people stumble is the metaphysics of three immaterial (and thus not distinguished by any matter-related properties) persons who (for instance) necessarily share every action in three ways determined by a fixed natural order. Not everyone would think this is quite accurate or quite adequate (for instance, not everyone would be as Platonist as would be required to accept the argument) but it’s been a sort of keystone of discussion for the subject.

  3. This is an interesting article which use set theory from mathematics to explain the processions and relations (the terms used in theology for the metaphysical red herring of being one and three at the same time, published in the journal “Theology and Science”:
    “Bridging Math and Theology: Constructing a Set Theoretic Model of the Processions and Relations in the Trinity” by Charles M. Vaughn

    The journal is published by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences:

  4. I´ve found this article by Charles M. Vaughn entitled “Bridging Math and Theology: Constructing a Set Theoretic Model of the Processions and Relations in the Trinity” published in the journal “Theology and Science” which use mathematics (set theory) to make sense of the red herring of being one and three at the same time, the so called processions and relations of the trinity.
    Properly, this issue cannot be named trinitarian metaphysics because we must introduce in the relation ourselves as a creation based on God´s own image and similarity, don´t you think? (something akin to cuaternarian metaphysics)In this sense, even by chatolic standards, every individual is also God (Genesis 1, 26-28)

  5. Tony

    Wiggens’s Sameness and Substance has some discussion of this issue. (Also, Abelard wrote a book about this in the early 1200’s which was then pronounced heretical and all copies were burned.)

  6. Tony, i agree with you that the metaphysical question of the relation between constitution and identity or if samenees is necessary for identity an issue of grand relevance which preoccupied Wiggins (1980) most of his time, opens up a via to explain ourselves as a constituted part of the Trinity: if we are (the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and ourselves) the same “thing” just because we share some constitution…I don´t know, i left this conundrum to more metaphysically-minded experts.
    At least today there is no institutions like the Inquisition to our relief, Tony!

  7. Sue

    The fact of the matter is, is that its all a collossal load of self-serving horse-pooh—a pretentious tower of babble/babel.

    And besides which it doesnt even begin to take into account the over-whelming reality of death, or the fact that in and of itself, the klik-klak world machine is compeletely indifferent to the well-being or survival of any biological form, including human meat-bodies.

    And prattling on about “jesus” makes no difference at all to the relentless klik-klak machine.

    The Hindu Goddess Kali eats all of her babies and entire galaxies for breakfast!

    The trinity that REALLY governs Christian “MEAT–aphysics” is the fear saturated paradigm of tri-partite separation. Namely that we are inherently separate from the Divine Reality, the world-process altogether, and all “other” sentient beings, including human beings.

    The moment you presume separation from anything, and thus objectify “it”. you immediately seek to control “it”, and eventually to destroy “it”.

    Put in another way, we are always at war with the Divine, the world-process, and each other.

    The politics & “culture” of fear rules.

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