Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Social Trinitarianism

Back on September 22, 2009, Dr. Bryan Cross started an interesting thread over at Called to Communion (which, btw, has become one of my favorites blogs), critiquing what has been termed “Social Trinitarianism” (ST). Bryan clearly believes ST “is not compatible with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity.” The thread has not stimulated very much interest (which I believe to be unfortunate), so I am duplicating my last post—adding some important resource(s) information.

Hello Bryan and Kjetil,

The exchange between the two of you yesterday has renewed my interest in this thread. I had hoped by now that Bryan would have answered the questions I posed to him back on the 24th; but alas, still no response. As such, I fear that my post may not be as cogent and constructive as I would like.

Kjetil posted:

>>We say that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is three persons. I don’t think that they are united in exactly the same way as three human persons – for instance Peter, James and John – is united. Because three human persons doesn’t just share an abstract property making them human. We also acknowledge that each of these persons has a concrete body and a concrete soul and that they have three concrete wills and operations.>>

Agreed; but with that said, some important Church Fathers still felt that important comparisons could be made. Note the following:

==For we say that gold, even though it be cut into many figures, is one, and is so spoken of, but we speak of many coins or many staters, without finding any multiplication of the nature of gold by the number of staters; and for this reason we speak of gold, when it is contemplated in greater bulk, either in plate or in coin, as “much,” but we do not speak of it as “many golds” on account of the multitude of the material, — except when one says there are “many gold pieces” (Daries, for instance, or staters), in which case it is not the material, but the pieces of money to which the significance of number applies: indeed, properly, we should not call them “gold” but “golden.”

As, then, the golden staters are many, but the gold is one, so too those who are exhibited to us severally in the nature of man, as Peter, James, and John, are many, yet the man in them is one..

Indeed, it would be a lengthy task to set out in detail from the Scriptures those constructions which are inexactly expressed, in order to prove the statement I have made; where, however, there is a risk of injury to any part of the truth, we no longer find in Scriptural phrases any indiscriminate or indifferent use of words. For this reason Scripture admits the naming of “men” in the plural, because no one is by such a figure of speech led astray in his conceptions to imagine a multitude of humanities or supposes that many human natures are indicated by the fact that the name expressive of that nature is used in the plural. But the word “God” it employs studiously in the singular form only, guarding against introducing the idea of different natures in the Divine essence by the plural signification of “Gods.” This is the cause why it says, “the Lord our God is one Lord, and also proclaims the Only-begotten God by the name of Godhead, without dividing the Unity into a dual signification, so as to call the Father and the Son two Gods, although each is proclaimed by the holy writers as God. The Father is God: the Son is God: and yet by the same proclamation God is One, because no difference either of nature or of operation is contemplated in the Godhead. For if (according to the idea of those who have been led astray) the nature of the Holy Trinity were diverse, the number would by consequence be extended to a plurality of Gods, being divided according to the diversity of essence in the subjects. But since the Divine, single, and unchanging nature, that it may be one, rejects all diversity in essence, it does not admit in its own case the signification of multitude; but as it is called one nature, so it is called in the singular by all its other names, “God,” “Good,” “Holy,” “Savior,” “Just,” “Judge,” and every other Divine name conceivable: whether one says that the names refer to nature or to operation, we shall not dispute the point. (Gregory of Nyssa, On “Not Three Gods” - NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. V, pp. 335, 336.)==


==Many persons, in their study of the sacred dogmas, failing to distinguish between what is common in the essence or substance, and the meaning of the hypostases, arrive at the same notions, and think that it makes no difference whether ousia or hypostasis be spoken of…

Of all nouns the sense of some, which are predicated of subjects plural and numerically various, is more general; as for instance man. When we so say, we employ the noun to indicate the common nature, and do not confine our meaning to any one man in particular who is known by that name. Peter, for instance is no more than, than Andrew, John, or James. The predicate therefore being common, and extending to all the individuals ranked under the same name, requires some note of distinction whereby we may understand not man in general, but Peter or John in particular…

Suppose then that two or more are set together, as, for instance, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and that an enquiry is made into the essence or substance of humanity; no one will give one definition of essence or substance in the case of Paul, a second in that of Silvanus, and a third in that of Timothy; but the same words which have been employed in setting forth the essence or substance of Paul will apply to the others also. Those who are described by the same definition of essence or substance are of the same essence or substance when the enquirer has learned what is common, and turns his attention to the differentiating properties whereby one is distinguished from another, the definition by which each is known will no longer tally in all particulars with the definition of another, even though in some points it be found to agree. (Basil, Letter XXXVIII – NPNF, 2nd series, Vol. VIII, p. 137.)==


==Everyone is to be warned to approach the questions of the “sacred page” most cautiously; but particularly those dialecticians of our own time (or, rather, the heretics of dialectic), who think that universal substances are the only “breath of the voice,” and cannot understand that color is something different from body, or wisdom from the soul, are to be blown right out of the discussion of spiritual questions…For instance, how can someone who does not yet understand how several men are one man in species comprehend how in that most mysterious and lofty nature several persons, each one of whom is perfect God, are one God? (St. Anselm, “Letter on the Incarnation of the Word”, A Scholastic Miscellany – Anselm to Ockham, pp. 98, 99.)==

And more important than the CFs is the language of the Chalcedonian Definition/Symbol of 451:

==We, then following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead (theotēti) and also perfect in manhood (anthrōpotēti); truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial (homoousion) with the Father according to the Godhead (theotēta), and consubstantial (homoousion) with us according to the Manhood (anthrōpotēta). (See Philip Schaff’s, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. II, p. 62.)==

I am not as convinced as Bryan that ST is as incompatible “with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity” as he believes. It is important to point out that some recent Catholic authors/theologians have actually embraced ST. The following are a few examples:

Catherine Mowry LaCugna – see her award winning, God For Us

George A. Maloney – see his Abiding In The Indwelling Trinity

Thomas V. Morris (former professor at Notre Dame) – see his The Logic of God Incarnate (especially chapter 9)

One must also take note of the 12th century Catholic mystic/theologian Richard of Saint Victor’s work, De Trinitate, which many believe teaches strong elements of ST.

I suspect as more Catholic theologians interact with their Eastern Orthodox collegues on the doctrine of the Trinity, one will see more leanings towards ST among Catholics.

Anyway, looking forward to some dialogue on ST…

Grace and peace,



Anonymous said...

Zero Comments?

Is Social Trinitarianism, which seems to stem from the Eastern Fathers heretical? Is it tritheism? Trinitarianism? I don't need to is not the strictest monotheism. But did Christ reveal the strictest possible monotheism? I say NO. A resounding NO. I don't care if my monotheism isn't acceptable to Jews or Muslims.


No time(and less brains) for substance in this area. I am with Cardinal Newman who wrote (this is from memory, thus possibly not exact)

"Firmly I believe that God is Three and God is One."

I do not believe it matters whether we start from the Three, or we start from the One. We maintain both, and Social Trinitarianism, as I understand it, does so, by beginning with the Three.


Anonymous said...

If I wasn't clear above, I believe that Christ taught, and the Catholic faith teaches, a modified monotheism. The most rigorous monotheism is not possible to the Catholic...In the opinion of this Catholic truck driver (fallible, heh). Okay...I am listening to the Catholic I err?


David Waltz said...

Hi Rory,

As you noticed, it seems that there is not much interest in ST…

You posted:

>> Is Social Trinitarianism, which seems to stem from the Eastern Fathers heretical? Is it tritheism? Trinitarianism?>>

I am convinced that most of the adherents of ST are “orthodox” (i.e. their teachings conform to the creeds/decrees/symbols of the Ecumenical Councils). Some of them are imprecise in their terminology and/or certain historical assessments, but once terms are carefully defined I believe one will conclude that they are truly Trinitarians.

>> No time(and less brains) for substance in this area. I am with Cardinal Newman who wrote (this is from memory, thus possibly not exact)

"Firmly I believe that God is Three and God is One.">>

Newman embraced many aspects of EO theology (but certainly not all) concerning the doctrine of the Trinity (maybe I need to devote a thread to this in the near future).

>> If I wasn't clear above, I believe that Christ taught, and the Catholic faith teaches, a modified monotheism. The most rigorous monotheism is not possible to the Catholic...In the opinion of this Catholic truck driver (fallible, heh). Okay...I am listening to the Catholic I err?>>

I think you are spot-on! (But then, I am just a crazy beachbum [grin].)

Grace and peace,


Anonymous said...

I posted this yesterday, but it looks to have dissappeared, i was wondering if you would critique this blog post, you seem to agree to some sort of Social trinitarianism.

David Waltz said...

Hi Anonymous,

Just now noticed your post—for some reason (Google glitch I suspect) I was not emailed that there had been a new post in this thread.

Thanks for the link, I will check it out tomorrow morning and get back to you.

Grace and peace,


David Waltz said...

In thread that was linked to by Anonymous we read:

>>In On “Not Three Gods”, Gregory mentions that the persons of the Godhead are united by their operations (works). This manner of speaking has been accosted for the purpose of social formulations of the Trinity, but a careful reading of the way in which Gregory employs the divine operations should dissuade us of any such notion within his own writings. It is not that the Father works, the Son works, and the Spirit works, and their works happen to match up, as if they were synchronized swimmers, but rather the work of the Father is the work of the Son and the Spirit. It is the same work. The work itself moves from Father, to Son, and to Spirit.>>

Me: Most social Trinitarians I have read acknowledge Steven’s observations and do not believe that such an understanding speaks against a social understanding of the Trinity. Many neo-modalist Trinitarians (“neo-modalist” in the sense used by Dr. William Hill in his book, The Three-Personed God: the Trinity as a Mystery of Salvation) seem to ignore the fact that a good number of social Trinitarians embrace a “moderate” view of divine simplicity (Erickson, LaCugna, Maloney, Plantinga come to mind).

Go back and read the selection from Gregory of Nyssa that I provided in my opening post—I think you will discern both the social and divine simplicity aspects in his thought.

Grace and peace,


Tor Hershman said...

Steam, water, ice.....