One of the virtues of Steven Studebaker’s Jonathan Edwards’ Social Augustinian Trinitarianism is his attention to forgotten debates. Our contemporary debates are not as cutting-edge as we think. We – and I do include myself in we – only think so because of our ignorance and amnesia.
He traces social Trinitarianism to early twentieth-century works: “Early social trinitarians emphasized the subjectivity of the divine persons and the role the relations between the divine persons play in informing human social relations.” In The Doctrine of the Trinity: Apologetically Considered (1907), J.R. Illingworth defined “personhood as self-consciousness, that is only fully realized in relationship to the other. Personhood is, therefore, inherently social. He then argues that if God is personal then he must be a plurality. He suggests that society and the family unity illustrate the plurality within the Godhead. He writes that ‘[a] person is as essentially social, as he is an individual, being; he cannot be realized, he cannot become his true self, apart from society, and personality having this plural implication, solitary personality is a contradiction in terms’” (Studebaker, 68-9, fn 3). Similar views were developed in the middle of the twentieth century by Leonard Hodgson (The Doctrine of the Trinity, 1944) and Charles Lowry (The Trinity and Christian Devotion, 1946).
But the debate started centuries earlier, as theologians reacted to the Cartesian and Hobbesian challenges to earlier views of the human person. A seventeenth-century dispute between William Sherlock and Robert South sounds very familiar, South playing the role of traditionalist accusing Sherlock of tritheism, while Sherlock pre-channeled Jurgen Moltmann in accusing South of modalrism.
Sherlock was not Moltmannian in theology. Rather Cartesian. He argued that a person is a self-consciousness, and applied this to the Triune persons: “He maintained that the divine persons are distinguished one from another by their unique self-consciousness. Since each divine person is distinct by virtue of self-consciousness, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct and infinite minds” (231), which are “as distinct from each other as are three human persons” (232).
We might have something to learn from these earlier debates.