Recursing on the Trinity

Recursing on the Trinity October 3, 2011

In a recent RCIA class, the lecturer was going over the concept of the Trinity and mentioned this doctrine was often the target of attempted atheist debunking. According to him, atheists latch onto 3 != 1 as proof that Christianity is riddled with irrationality. He then offered a riposte to this objection and moved on with the explanation.

I feel obligated to point out that the 3 != 1 is not the true rejection of any atheist I know. There are a lot of other beliefs that the Trinity is predicated on, and, if you’d managed to convince me to accept the existence of a God, and then the existence of a Christian God, I’d be inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt when you make the case for a more abstract, less relevant to daily life part of your theology.

Whether or not I find the concept of the Trinity coherent is mostly irrelevant to my appraisal of Christianity. It’s a textbook case of privileging the hypothesis. The amount of evidence you’d have to show me to persuade me that the Trinity is plausible is pretty close to the amount you’d need to convince me it was true. It’s internal to the question of Christianity’s validity; someone outside the religion doesn’t have opinions on that level of granularity that are independent of their opinion of the religion as a whole.

So that should be enough of a caveat/explanation to make it clear that my question below is posed out of a spirit of curiosity, not because it makes much of a difference to my atheism. But I’d still be interested in hearing explanations from Christian commenters. Here goes:

The way it was explained to me, God-the-Father and God-the-Christ exist as two Persons in one Being. God knows the Christ fully and perfectly, and, because the Christ is perfectly good, God’s love for Him is also full and perfect and the same process runs in reverse. This infinitely perfect love flowing between the Father and the Christ causes the Holy Spirit to proceed from the Father and Son. I’m pretty sure I’ve got it right up to there.

What I want to know is why the process terminates there. Presumably the Father and the Christ both know and love the Paraclete fully and perfectly and It returns their love. Why doesn’t another Person manifest as the result of that love which itself is loved, causing the issuance of a new Person to be loved and so on and so forth?

Not a particularly pressing problem for me, but algorithmic minds want to know.

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  • Yes, no atheist I've known has thrown out the trinity as an example of how Christianity is false…except one, and he was just egging me on with all sorts of junk (usually concluding in spaghetti monster straws).I've often wondered the same thing about the trinity and had heard an answer that satisfied me at the time (but for the life of me don't remember it now). I think it connected to a piece missing from your formulation, that the being of God in the person of the Father has a perfect thought/understanding/logos about who He is, this Logos, being so perfect, is the second person, the Son. And so forth from there.It may have also had a connection to the "this is only an approximation. We cannot fully explain God, if we could we would be greater than He."

  • Tao

    "The Tao gives birth to One. One gives birth to Two. Two gives birth to Three. Three gives birth to all things."

  • I will admit that I have always seen the Trinity as a shibboleth of sorts – sufficiently insane on the face of it, that it is a useful distinguishing mark between those who are part of the tribe and those who are not. I think it is also notable that a lot of heresies spring out of unorthodox understandings of the Trinity.Equally, as an atheist, I do not reject Christianity because of the doctrine of the Trinity; however, if I were leaning towards a monotheistic faith, it would lean me towards a different monotheism, so it does have an effect.

  • dbp

    I just typed and lost an extensive comment. Sigh. For some reason your comment system won't work in IE9 anymore, so I'll try again from Chrome, much more briefly.There are no accidents (in the philosophical sense) in God, and God has only one essence, so distinct persons are distinct only by their relationships: the Son in being begotten, and the Spirit in proceeding. Any 'recursive persons' would bear the same relationships (either begetting or procession) to the same thing (God, who has only one essence), and so could not be distinguished from the Son and the Spirit.Furthermore, there is the concept of the 'Monarchy of the Father,' i.e. that the Father is the sole principle of Godhead, and that the other Persons possess it as received. So, in particular, the reflexive operations of the Father are consummated (completely fulfilled) in the two persons of the Spirit and the Son, and so no further Persons can be generated without introducing some new operation.So, since you're mathematically inclined, here are two analogies:1) Is 3 – 2 = 5 – 4? Sure, both come out to 1, but are they the SAME 1? The answer is, of course. There are no accidents to distinguish the two pure, abstract numbers, and so they must be considered wholly identical. Any recursive persons would be identical for the same reasons.2) Think of finite cyclical groups in group theory. No matter how many operations you apply, you end up with just a finite number of members of the group, simply because of the nature of the generator(s) and the operations available.Incidentally, these principles were all at work in the filioque controversy. The East wanted to defend the monarchy of the Father, and the West wanted to explore the implications of the fact that Persons with nothing to distinguish them from each other are the same Person. The result of the latter principle seems to indicate that if the procession of the Spirit is wholly independent in any way of the Son, there would be nothing to distinguish the Son and the Spirit. This problem is now largely solved, because there isn't an inherent tension between the two positions. The principle of the Person of the Spirit lies solely in the Father, but it is the Father acting in relationship to the Son, and so the procession of the Spirit depends on the Son in an indirect way (for without the 2nd Person of the Trinity, there would be no object of the Love that is the 3rd).Does that help clear up the argument at all?

  • I feel obligated to post because I (Tao) get to post underneath someone going by Tao. That's pretty neat.First of all, excellent icon! And your first 3 paragraphs are exactly the way I felt about the Trinity when I was an atheist. I assume this is the way that most people feel too.After a quick read of your explanation of the doctrine, it seems about as uncontroversial as a three sentence summation can be expected to be. Oh wait, you included the filioque, nevermind haha!But the question of why aren't there an infinite number of divine persons is a good one, and it's one that lots of people have asked. I haven't seen it approached from the recursion angle though. The answer probably comes from a more nuanced understanding of procession. That is, incidentally, also how you get to the filioque actually mattering at all. And I'll be honest, I am still yet to be convinced that the filioque makes any sense.If you care enough about divine procession to do some heavy reading for fun, there's always:

  • Whoa the person above me posted about the filioque too! Obviously this is a sign of relevance.I'm sad that I'm now several comments underneath other Tao though… :/

  • I think any serious answer must start with the admission that we don't know. The trinity is a revelation of a reality we don't really understand and anything we extrapolate from what little we do understand has a high probability of being bunk. So I will offer my speculation but I would be very hesitant to call any other understanding wrong, a hesitancy I don't have on matters of actual Christian doctrine.That being said even perfect love can differ depending on the relation it pertains to. Looking by analogy to imperfect human love, the love between husband and wife is naturally procreative while the no less noble love between parent and child isn't. I wouldn't take this analogy too far, because the begetting relation in the trinity is between Father and Son and doesn't involve the Spirit. Also human begetting leads to a new substance, while the Father begetting the Son is a relation of the one divine substance. But I think it shows how the meaning of love can depend on who loves whom without that being a difference of degree. So there is no fundamental reason why the perfect love between the Father and the Son should be indistinguishable from the perfect love between the Father and Spirit and Son and Spirit. So I would look at it from different ways of loving. There is loving in a way that personates alone and loving in a way that personates together and three persons are necessary and sufficient for one God to do both. So while Father ans Spirit and Son and Spirit love each other with perfect love it isn't with the perfect love that personates.As a further note firmly entering the realm of speculation and leaving the revealed ground, the response to either way of loving doesn't need to be identical to that way of loving itself. I'm somewhat partial to the idea that the love personating together is the perfect response to the love personating alone thus explaining why the persons of the trinity love each other in the ways they do. But this paragraph is, again, pure speculation even more so than the two preceding it. To repeat myself, nothing I said is a point of doctrine. One can be a perfectly orthodox Christian and think I'm totally talking through my backside. But this is how I make sense of it.

  • dbp, those were some very helpful analogies for me, thanks. I hadn’t thought about the Trinity that way before.

    I want to go just slightly off-topic and mention how Christian theology has been really picking up on the relational aspects of the Trinity recently. Unlike the stark monotheisms of Judaism and Islam, Christianity allows for an understanding of reality as relational in a very fundamental way. Helps respond to the atomistic individualism so common today in both philosophy and society.

    Also off-topic, but something I like… semiotics and the Trinity can be analogized to each other too. A semiotic triad consists of the object, the representation of the object, and the interpretant. In terms of reading a book, the words are representations, the objects the words refer to are the objects, and the reader is the interpretant. Some theologians have just overlaid the Trinity onto that saying: God the father is the object, Jesus the representation, and the Holy Spirit the interpretant.

    If you expand semiotics to biosemiotics (that life is a semiotic process – just think of DNA as a code) then you start to see that semiosis is the origin of life and mind… rather like the Trinity. Natural semiosis is the vestige of the Trinitarian creator in creation.

    These guys started this route of inquiry:

    Now I’m not explaining it well and I’m not saying this is the truth, just that it’s interesting. A Trinitarian theology discovers a nature full of triads. Could be wrong could be right, suspicious both ways.

    Did I mention that I love how God can hide in plain sight?

  • Scott Hebert

    Very interesting.

    I might also point out that the triad is the most basic interaction set where certain network properties (such as transitivity) can be observed. Perhaps this has something to do with it?

  • maiki

    Because God is simple, in a way, and you don’t need “redundant” roles. The Holy Spirit is the Love of the Father and the Son, it doesn’t need to be recursed.

    The analogy used here is a weird one, but it is one I like.. It is based on a quotation from the City of God by St. Augustine, about things that are certain:

    “Without any delusive representation of images or phantasms, I am most certain that I am, and that I know and delight in this. In respect of these truths, I am not at all afraid of the arguments of the Academicians, who say, What if you are deceived? For if I am deceived, I am. For he who is not, cannot be deceived; and if I am deceived, by this same token I am. And since I am if I am deceived, how am I deceived in believing that I am? For it is certain that I am if I am deceived. Since, therefore, I, the person deceived, should be, even if I were deceived, certainly I am not deceived in this knowledge that I am. And, consequently, neither am I deceived in knowing that I know. For, as I know that I am, so I know this also, that I know. And when I love these two things, I add to them a certain third thing, namely, my love, which is of equal moment. For neither am I deceived in this, that I love, since in those things which I love I am not deceived; though even if these were false, it would still be true that I loved false things. For how could I justly be blamed and prohibited from loving false things, if it were false that I loved them? But, since they are true and real, who doubts that when they are loved, the love of them is itself true and real?”

    Being, Knowledge and Love, are essential things about the nature of our soul, and they are things that are certain. They are also inseparable yet distinct things — but they are of the same nature. But it is hard to conceive of there needing to be more things, for they are simple and necessary.

    Dunno if this is helpful. I’m not sure how well I can explain it.

  • Thomas Beyer

    The Church (itself and via St. Thomas) says that the doctrine of the Trinity is not something that can be known by reason alone. It is a matter of faith revealed directly by Christ, which we could not know otherwise.

    It is also a mystery (from the Greek mysterion), meaning not that it is irrational, but that it is impossible for our matter-based minds to comprehend. In other words, there is nothing contrary to reason in the doctrine of the Trinity. Nevertheless, because our minds cannot know something we have never experienced through matter (unless it be shown to us directly like the Beatific Vision), it is beyond us.

    To answer your question, the process doesn’t stop there. Creation is the result of the outflow of God’s love. He does so not because he must, but because he chooses to as a loving being, because it is good for other beings to exist. The angels were the first creation (though “first” is a little misleading since, being immaterial, there was, as yet, no time).

    Then he created the universe through the angel’s ministration. Now, I think this started with the Big Bang and progressed through evolution and the rest until you end up with the first man, who then has a soul infused by God, which is what I believe the “breathing in the nostrils” thing in Genesis is describing. The Church doesn’t teach this, or even suggest it officially, but it does say it’s possible.

    Suddenly, Man is the first rational, material creature–half-way between rock and angels, the bridge between the greatest Being, God (who is an Intellect) and the lowest (which is a body). Of course, Christ Incarnate is the ultimate Man, bridging this gap completely as both God and Man entirely.

    Augustine and Aquinas both pick up on this idea as a kind of modification of the neo-Platonic idea of emanation from the Unmoved Mover. Pope Benedict talks about this in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy as well…that this is the true and fundamental nature of the universe–to proceed from God via his loving Creation, and return to him via loving religion (meaning, the duty we owe to God as Creator).

    Stop by my blog, PopSophia.

  • Rob

    The Church of Jesus Christ adds an interesting perspective to this conversation. It maintains that the Godhead consists of three distinct, physically separate beings. When Christ was baptized and the voice of God was heard saying, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased,” Christ’s father was literally communicating to both his son and to others witnessing the event. The various references Christ makes to his father are to be taken quite literally. For example, when Christ says, “The son does nothing but what he sees the father do,” he is referring to his father in heaven, who is one in purpose with Christ, but is physically quite distinct. Joseph Smith, the prophet who ushered in the restoration of Christ’s Church (after centuries of apostasy from the pure and simple doctrines Christ taught) explained, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.”

    • Thomas Beyer

      To be fair though, Rob, Mormonism isn’t Christianity. Christianity is essentially Trinitarian, meaning it believes what the early councils of the Church taught about the nature of God, summarized in the Athanasian Creed. This is, in fact, at the very heart of Christianity, what sets it apart from all other religions.

      Likewise, Christianity, like Judaism before it, has from the beginning taught that God is purely spiritual and immaterial.

      While entitled to your own opinions, please do not claim them as those of the Church.

      • Gilbert

        I haven’t seen it in writing before, but orally that has been their standard usage for a long time. Mormon missionaries always introduce themselves as “Elder X of the Church of Jesus Christ” dropping the “of the Latter-day saints”. Which is a pity, because that way I have to reply “No” rather than the old but still funny “Nice to meet you. I’m layman Gilbert of the Church of Jesus Christ of the First-hour saints (Catholics)”.

      • Rob

        I would think what would set Christianity apart from all other religions is what Christ taught, and all of what Christ taught, Mormonism accepts.

        Query: if what defines Christianity is what councils concluded hundreds of years after Christ’s death, was Christ a Christian?

        • Thomas Beyer

          While it’s true to say that Christ’s teachings are what set Christianity apart, Christ’s central teaching was that of the Trinity. See, what Christ did wasn’t anything special unless he is the Second Person of the Trinity. In fact, there’s a famous argument that either Christ is God or he was a madman. Those are the only two options.

          In n.234 of the Catechism, the Church says that “the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the central mystery of Christian faith and life. It is the mystery of God in himself. It is therefore the source of all the other mysteries of faith, the light that enlightens them.” You see, because the doctrine of the Trinity is a teaching about the very essence and nature of God, it is the fundamental principle of everything that is, because all things exist only insofar as they participate in God’s Being.

          Mormonism teaches one interpretation of Christ’s teachings. Now, you’re free to disagree with me, but it’s pretty clear from a cursory glance at the New Testament and the Early Church Fathers that Mormonism has it really, really wrong.

  • mm

    It also might help to think of God as spirit which is traditionally defined as intellect and volition. God the Father’s intellect is the root from which the Son arises while God’s volition, fully realized, results in the personhood of the Holy Ghost. Since there are only these two elements to spiritual entities, there really isn’t anything else from which additional persons might arise.
    Since God is the only absolute spirit, it is only God who would absolutely realize these two elements in the fullness of spiritual persons

    • R.C.

      At any rate, everyone should keep in mind that the term “person” used in the definition of “Trinity” does not mean what it means in casual English conversation, but is a technical Greek philosophical term which was further refined as a theological term for its specific use in Christianity. It might be better not to even translate the term from Latin or Greek, but leave it in another language, when it is being used that way. That way we could remember that “persona” or “hypostasis” doesn’t, when used this way, mean “some guy,” as if there were “three guys” swimming around inside God like fish in a tank. Likewise the word “being” is a bit floaty, perhaps New-Agey, in English usage. But the Trinity doesn’t mean there are Three Guys In One Floaty Existence. It means there are Three Hypostases in One Ousia.

      This double-usage of English terms really does cause confusion, much like the use of the term “substance” in the “substance”/”accidents” distinction regarding transubstantiation confuses modern ears because this technical Aristotelian/Thomist term doesn’t mean anything like what a casual modern speaker means when he says, “What’s this substance I’m scraping off my shoe?”

      And it gets worse. Google “homoousios vs homoiousios” to see what I mean.

      But that’s the kind of confusing crap you’re in for, if you inquire into the fundamental nature of things. So we can’t be too cranky about it: “Okay, teacher, give me a straight answer: Is an electron a particle, like a lump of stuff, or is it really just a wave rippling through some other stuff? Just tell it to me, one way or the other. And don’t try to weasel around the question, ’cause I’ve had enough of your qualifications and provisos and I want a straight answer!”

  • Everything that exists receives its existence and all its other qualities – power, intelligence, purity, life, etc. – from the fullness of God. So, everything receives a little bit of God, but God is never drained or diminished because He is infinite, so for Him to give life to all things and keep them in existence is no trouble at all . . . . as there no limit to how much God can give. Granted that there is no limit, then what would happen if the infinite God gave Himself infinitely? The Trinity.
    The Father pours Himself out infinitely, and the Son receives all the fullness of the Father: almighty God from almighty God, light from light, true God from true God.
    The Son, being exactly like the Father, gives Himself totally to the Father, and so the Trinity is infinite gift being given infinitely and given back again infinitely. The Holy Spirit is the infinite gift-being-given between the Father and Son.
    The fact that a total gift of self can only be given to one person establishes the limit of the Trinity: this is why the Father cannot give Himself infinitely to the Holy Spirit, because He is given totally to the Son. Why can the Holy Spirit not give Himself infinitely to another person, giving rise to a fourth person? Because the Holy Spirit is not giver, but only gift.