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!
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