I will propose a new formulation of the traditional Catholic/Orthodox Trinitarian theology, firstly, as expressed in the venerable dogmatic definitions of the first seven councils; secondly, as anciently interpreted by St. Augustine and the Cappodocian fathers; and thirdly, with reference to the fresh and contemporary expositions of Trinitarianism in the literary corpus of Dr. David Bentley Hart. The proposal is made in precise terminology which carefully expresses the doctrine of divinity found in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, as well as coining some more precise terminology so as to carefully make the proposal in such a way that certain Islamic criticisms of ‘Trinitarianism’ (considered broadly) do not pose any problem to it. Importantly, the proposal will elucidate the actual doctrine of the Trinity: ie. the doctrine of the Trinity as it has continuously developed in the Catholic/Orthodox tradition from the time of Christ all the way up to the present.1
A Dogmatic Requirement of Islam
In Āyah 4:1712 the angel Gabriel commands the Prophet Muhammad to proclaim a prophetical rebuke to the Christian world:
O People of the Bible! Do not exceed the limits of your religion; Do not say anything about God except the Truth; that the Messiah, Jesus, was the son of Mary; that He was a Prophet of God; that He was the Word of God; that He was born of the holy and immaculate virgin mother; and that His spirit proceeds from God. So believe in God and his prophets, and never say “Three” – Cease from such blasphemy for your own benefit, because God is One. Glory be to God that he should have a son, to whom belongs all that is in heaven and all that is in the earth. And behold: He is entirely worthy of our faith.3
While admittedly here the Āyah has been ripped out of its context in Surah An-Nisa, when taken in isolation there is arguably nothing in it which actually conflicts with Orthodox Christian belief. The angel Gabriel is not here admonishing Christians to abandon Christianity and become Muslims, but rather to stay within the limits of Christianity. He then lists these limits in the form of a simple creed which would be acceptable to Muslims and Christians alike. So rather than Christians interpreting this Āyah as an attack on their faith (as they usually do), I propose that it would be better if they instead humbly accepted it as a prophetic gift from the Ummah, which can then serve as a help to keep the community of the Church steadfast in the truth and purity of Monotheism. When read in this way, it just so happens that for Christians the most relevant part of the Āyah today is the prohibition against saying ‘three;’ The Āyah does not deny the divinity of the Father, of the Son, or of the Spirit, and in fact is perfectly consistent with a “high Trinitarian” theology.4 It would seem that the single thing forbidden is the attribution of the number “three” to God.
If Christians are to take this Āyah to heart, they must cease from saying things such as “One God in Three Persons,” and indeed refrain from talking about “One ουσία in three ὑποστάσεσῐν,” and even stop speaking of “One substantia in three persōnīs.” According to Gabriel – however else Christians might talk about God, “threeness” should never be attributed to him (Incidentally, this renders the Athanasian creed unspeakable on account of it containing a single unfortunate clause which explicitly mentions “three persons”).5
As it turns out, this is all something of a felix condicio; none of these stringent limitations on the boundaries of Christian speech pose any actual problem for traditional Trinitarian thinking, nor does anything in Āyah 4:171 require Christians to modify their doctrine of God in any way. Rather, the Āyah is itself a concise statement of various key moments in the Christian narrative and a perspicuous affirmation of divine oneness. In essence, it merely requires that Christians be more scrupulous with the phraseology they employ to explain the occultus opes hidden within the mysterium fidei sui. While it is true that many Christian theologians have employed the number three to construct analogical imagery for the purpose of helping the faithful to develop an intuition for the divine; and while it may be conceded that certain theologians – the vast majority necessarily being schizmatic, if not always heretical6 – have explicitly imported ontological triplicity into their doctrine of divinity; nevertheless the traditional Christian explanations and dogmas concerning God do indeed refrain from attributing “threeness” to God in any real or ontological sense,7 thus obeying Gabriel’s imperative in the Āyah.8
Christians are not forbidden by Āyah 4:171 to confess that Jesus is fully divine, nor are they prevented from claiming the Son and the Spirit to be ὁμοούσιον and co-eternal with the Father. But they are commanded – on pain of the sin of blasphemy – to refrain from developing such a confession into any ‘tripling’ description of God. As such, the ubiquitous “three divine persons,” a speculative “three beings,” the tenured language of “three substances,” and ancient formulas of “three hypostases” are forbidden. According to Āyah 4:171, the only number that can ever be applied to God is “One.”9 Taking this seriously requires Christians to think very carefully about what the word “person” really means, because the implication is that while the Father, Son and Spirit are equally divine, equally personal, and truly different from each other, there can only be one person in God.10 This will be explained below, whereupon it will be made completely clear that I am not merely proposing a nouvelle résurrection of the venerable and charming heresies of Sabbelius, nor a plein d’entrain répétition of the modalism embraced by St. Tertullian’s beloved simplicēs.
Aesthetic Epistemology: Divine Truth as Infinite Beauty
Hart systematically sings the glories of the Triune God in his published PhD thesis – The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth – which is a profound and stimulating distillation of the entire Orthodox/Catholic tradition concerning the Trinitarian nature of God, and a bringing into dialogue of this tradition with the promiscuously multiple and nefariously protean existentialisms, absurdisms and nihilisms of modernity. Importantly for the purpose of this paper, during his confrontations with the heathen philosophers he manages to pull off a lucid explanation of the Christian God without ever insinuating – neither explicitly nor implicitly – that divinity encompasses any sort of ontological triplicity.11
It is hard to summarise all of the surprising reflections that Hart communicates to us in his magnum opus, however for the purposes of this essay the essential theological point I will extract from his delightful prose and attempt to rephrase in my own inadequate words is the following: To be a Person – whether Human or Divine – necessarily implies the ontological relationship of this Person with an “Other” – a Different Person – who shares his or her nature, by way of communion with a “Yet Another” – a further Distinct Person – who also shares his or her nature.12 In other words, the key to understanding the Trinity according to Hart is to first straighten out our Anthropology: The prevalent modern notion of a Person as a self-sufficient, self-defining, isolated single subject is unmasked by Hart as nothing but unequivocal heresy, and he then explains how Christianity reveals the true nature of Personhood: Persons cannot be Persons apart from multiple other Persons. Rather, Persons are only truly Persons when they are in the intimacy of loving community, each with the other. When this relationship of loving community is rejected by a human individual, that individual is rejecting their essential – and personal – nature; they are depersonalising and even dehumanising themselves.13
To put it another way, rather than speaking of God as “three persons,” Hart instead speaks of God as one single personality which – in a way necessary to the nature of personality – just is the strictly essential yet entirely uncoerced embrace of both univocal identity (or sameness – the Father) and equivocal dissimilarity (or otherness – the Son) in the peaceful traversal of the infinite analogical interval between them (the communion – the Spirit).
A Proposal of a Refined Creedal Formula
In light of all that has been said thus far, I now propose a new and precise dogmatic formula which concisely sounds all the essential notes of the Immanent Trinity without in the process falling into any of the theological discord which is firmly forbidden by Āyah 4:171 insofar as it is understood to prohibit any language which implies an ontological attribution of “threeness” to the divine. To wit, rather than speaking about God as “three persons,” I should instead say that The One God is One Divine Person in relationship to himself in The One Divine Other through The One Divine Yet-Another. Or, to moot it as a precise Latin dogmatic formula, solus dīvīnus simplicitas in ūnō dīvīnō persōnā patris ad sēsē in ūno dīvīnō alterapersōnā fīliī per sēsē in ūno dīvīnō redalterapersōnā sānctī spīritūs Deus est.14
The first thing to observe – and in light of the analysis of Āyah 4:171 above, the most important – is that the formula does not “say three;” rather, all of the words in the formula are grammatically singular (ie, none of them are semantically or morphologically plural), and the adjective ūnus is pointedly and reiteratively affirmed of all the nouns in the formula. The formula also carefully avoids deploying the word persona thrice;15 rather, the father is identified as the divine person, while the son is named as the divine other-person and the Spirit is referred to as the divine yet-another-person; this linguistic tactic makes clear the important fact that God is only one person, while simultaneously affirming that the personality of the Father necessarily requires an essential and ontological relationship of divine communion with the Son and the Spirit, which therefore implies that the Son and Spirit are truly and fully personal as well, yet their personalities subsist as precisely distinct modes of relation and thus are truly different ways of being and analogically related moments in divine personhood. Secondly, this formula captures the orthodox notion of the monarchy of the father,16 in that ūnus dīvīnus simplicitas in ūnō dīvīnō persōnā patris is syntactically the sole predicate of Deus est. However it also captures the consubstantiality of the Son and the Spirit with the Father by applying the adjective dīvīnus to them.
Thirdly, it is necessary that dīvīnus be understood to imply strict divine simplicity, hence the clarifying inclusion of ūnus dīvīnus simplicitas immediately at the beginning of the formula. If simplicity were not explicitly stated, it would be possible to read the formula as a straightforward confession of Subordinationism or Arianism. Simplicity ensures that the alterperson of the Son and the realterperson of the Spirit are fully divine in all the same ways that the person of the Father is divine, sine exceptione (aka, the Father, Son and Spirit are consubstantial), while yet remaining personally distinct from each other and from the Father. To wit, saying that the Father is “The Unbegotten God who is not Begotten” and that the Son is “The Begotten God who is not Unbegotten” is simply to say that – on account of divine simplicity – the alterpersona of the Son is fully divine and fully personal in all the same ways as the persona of the Father; but it is also simultaneously to say that the divine person of the Father is analogically distinct from the divine alterperson of the Son while always remaining ontologically equivalent to him.17
Applying this formula rigorously leads to further clarifying limitations on Christian theological language. For one, just as in scripture and the Nicene Creed Jesus is never called “God” and – when he and the Father are referred to in the same breath – is instead always called “Lord,” so too it is inappropriate to refer to the Son as “a person” except when talking about the Λόγος in isolation. When referring to both the Father and the Son in the same sentence, the person must always be the Father while the alterperson must always be the Son. On the other hand, there are also times in scripture when the Son is referred to without any immediate referential connection to the Father, and in these situations the Son is quite often called “God.” Therefore in a similar fashion, if a Muslim were to interrogate us with “Do you say that Jesus is the Divine Person of God?” we are still permitted by Christian orthodoxy (and even Āyah 4:171) to joyfully respond with a confession of unconditional affirmation. However if the interrogation were to flow on from this sublime μᾰρτῠρῐ́ᾱ to a querying of how, if both the person of Jesus and the person of his Father are equally God, this does not imply a form of polytheism, we would respond by disputing the very terms in which the question has been phrased: If the Father is the divine person, then Jesus – while always remaining fully personal – is nevertheless not the divine person; rather, Jesus in relation to the Father is the divine alterperson. And this way of speaking theological truth lines up directly with how Jesus must be referred to by the title “Lord” whenever the Father has already been spoken of as “God.”
Another implication is that it becomes permissible to call Jesus “The Father” by analogy, in much the same way Christians call Jesus “God;” a title which – strictly speaking – belongs to the Father Alone. To devout Trinitarians who find this unnerving, I draw attention to the famous scriptural precedent of Isaiah 9:6:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”18
One more implication of the formula is that it can be reformulated into the style of the Athanasian creed (in order to redeem said creed from its sins against Āyah 4:171) and substituted over the offending section like so:
So God is one Person, not three Persons; one Other, not three Others; one Yet-Another, not three Yet-Anothers. And in this communion none is before, and none is after; none is greater, and none is lesser. But the Person, his Other and his Yet-Another are coeternal, consubstantial, and coequal.
If – against all expectation – Christians were to unanimously agree to cease using the word “trinity,” perhaps a more orthodox replacement which better conveys the underlying theology – and might perhaps be more satisfactory for Muslims – would be “community.” David Bentley Hart demonstrates in The Beauty of the Infinite that it is possible to construct a robust trinitarian theology, without ever “saying three.” This is a great boon for interfaith dialogue with Muslims, and can help Christians to more precisely refine their theological language. God is indeed Father, Son and Spirit, but we need never attribute ontological threeness to God in order to hold on to traditional Christian theology and Doctrine.
Hart, David B. The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth. Grand Rapids Michigan: Eerdmans, 2003.
Pavao, Paul. Decoding Nicaea. Selmer Tennesse: Greatest Stories Ever Told, 2014.
Br Reginald Mary Chua OP, Masters Thesis (Unpublished).
1As opposed to modern and contemporary innovative accounts of Trinitarianism which tend to either completely jettison the traditional understanding or merely pay lip-service to it without actual comprehension.
2لنِّسَاء – Surah An-Nisa – “The Woman”
3Intentionally interpreted here to line up with Christian doctrine as closely as I believe is permissible by the underlying al-ʻArabīyah al-Fuṣḥā: يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ لَا تَغْلُوا فِي دِينِكُمْ وَلَا تَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّهِ إِلَّا الْحَقَّ ۚ إِنَّمَا الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَىٰ مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِّنْهُ ۖ فَآمِنُوا بِاللَّهِ وَرُسُلِهِ ۖ وَلَا تَقُولُوا ثَلَاثَةٌ ۚ انتَهُوا خَيْرًا لَّكُمْ ۚ إِنَّمَا اللَّهُ إِلَٰهٌ وَاحِدٌ ۖ سُبْحَانَهُ أَن يَكُونَ لَهُ وَلَدٌ ۘ لَّهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ وَكَفَىٰ بِاللَّهِ وَكِيلًا – 4:171
4ie, divine consubstantiality. While Āyah 4:171 is the most relevant to Trinitarianism, this paper is not an exhaustive survey of the Quranic canon, and so there are almost certainly other Āyat which require exegesis if one aims to show that the entire Qu’ran is consistent with Catholic tradition.
5Sed totae tres personae coaeternae sibi sunt et coaequales. However the creed can arguably be salvaged with some creative contextual hermeneutics, by proposing that the personae being described in this clause with the adjective tres are something recursively located on the purely syntactic/lexical level (ie, as a reference to the words “Father, Son and Spirit” as they have been used prior to this clause in the creed), rather than importing any semantic onto-triplicity into the underlying res referred to by the signum ‘God.’ This would therefore allow us to understand the clause to be saying something roughly similar to, for example, “The seven theological categories of essence, fatherhood, nature, filiation, being, spirit and existence are coeternal and coequal with each other in God (while yet remaining analogically distinct in their perichoretic simplicity);” thus, it can be seen how on the lexical level God is just as much “seven” as he is “three.” Orthodox Sunnī Muslims would be unfair to make a controversy out of this interpretive move, considering that in their expositions of the doctrine of Tawḥīd (according to both Al-ʾAšāʿirah and Al-Maturidiyya schools), they are entirely content to attribute a numerical plurality of equivocal attributes to Allah. In any case, divine personality must be ontologically consistent with the demands of Tawḥīd, and therefore the phrase tres personae cannot in any real sense attribute “threeness” to God’s unique essence, simple nature, one reality and singular being.
6They are most often protestant, evangelical or analytical philosophers, fond of ‘explaining’ the Trinity with simplistic aphorisms such as “God is one ‘what’ and three ‘who’s.” This is unacceptable and it would be more accurate to say something along the lines of “God is one ‘I,’ one ‘thou,’ and one ‘him.’ (and for that matter, one ‘我們 (Wǒmen – exclusive 1ps, pl),’ one ‘咱們 (Zánmen – inclusive 1ps, pl)’ too)” Describing God as “three ‘who’s” is unrefined and – according to Āyah 4:171 – a heretical way of speaking.
7As mentioned above, in theological discourse, numerical adjectives can only be used in descriptive analyses of sentences concerning God, but they cannot be used in descriptions of God per se. So while it is valid to note the “threeness” in, for example, the baptismal formula, it would not be valid to infer from this lexical triplicity in the liturgical language to any sort of ontological triplicity in the divine per se.
8Whenever a classically-leaning theologian in the course of their theologizing happens to “slip up” or “throw in the towel” by “saying three,” this is always in the context of an analogical illustration, and to their scandalously tantric trinitarian imagery will invariably and immediately be appended extensive apologies, repentant obeisances and precise qualifications to explain how the theologian is in no way claiming to deny the oneness, singularity, uniqueness, simplicity and unity of divinity. A skilful theologian such as Hart – who is deeply read in both classical Trinitarian literature and Islamic writings on Tawḥīd – is able to explain the Trinity in a completely orthodox manner without even once falling into the trap of “saying three.”
9As well as according to Islamic Tawḥīd more broadly, which holds that God is One (الْأَحَد – Al-ʾAḥad) and Single (الْوَاحِد – Al-Wāḥid), and therefore neither Three nor Triple. Whether Āyah 4:171 permits Christians to speak of God as Triune or a Tri-unity is an unresolved question, seeing as these terms both include the morpheme “tri-” which semantically involves a loose concept of “threeness.” Whether or not “saying three” on the morphological level of language is considered to fail the injunction of Āyah 4:171 is something to be explored via further interfaith dialogue, but in this author’s opinion it will be a hurdle extremely tough to clear: Requiring Christians to refrain from saying “three” is reasonable enough, but asking them to renounce their natively developed terminological heritage of “Trinity/Triune/Tri-unity” will invariably continue to be an exceedingly tough sell (And further, Āyah 4:171 in the Abdul Haleem interpretation aggravatingly adds more polemical fuel to the theological fire by directly translating ثَلَاثَةٌ ۚ as “Trinity”).
10It is important to clarify here that I am not arguing for the position that traditional Christian theology of the Trinity which uses ‘tripling’ language is inherently contradictory or incoherent. For example Aquinas presents an extremely orthodox, compelling, consistent and coherent doctrine of divinity which permits him to – for example – describe God as “one being” and as “three beings” simultaneously. I’m simply proposing a manner of accurately articulating the traditional Christian doctrine of divinity which conforms to the restrictions on theological language mandated by Āyah 4:171. The challenge a theologian confronts in attempting to accurately explain the Trinity according to the requirements of Christian orthodoxy while also refusing to “say three,” is analogously akin to the challenge which a vegan embraces when she searches for creative ways to maintain her health and vitality while refusing to ever eat meat or drink milk; both are incredibly difficult, yet both are also entirely possible.
11I make this claim on the basis of my impressions immediately after having read through the entire tremendous tome in one sitting. I concede that a more rigorous, slow and scientific reading may perhaps reveal this judgement to be technically inaccurate.
12Successfully grasping this point elegantly leads one’s intellect to a beatific theoria in which it logically comprehends the notion that – while the definition of personhood is univocal between Humans and God – the fact that personhood requires relationship “within” persons of a mutually shared nature leads to there being a single person in God – on account of his simple nature – and a plurality of persons in Humanity – on account of our non-simple nature.
13All of which is to say they are rejecting God and experiencing damnation.
14Literally “God is the singular divine simplicity, in the one divine person of the Father, towards himself in the one divine other of the Son, through himself in the one divine yet-another of the Holy Spirit.” While this formulation and the Latin terms alterapersōna and redalterapersōna are terms of my own coinage, I believe they accurately capture the theology expressed by Hart in his minor dogmatics.
15This safeguards against any subtle leaning towards an intuition that there is some sort of triplicity or tritheism in God, which inevitably happens when the father, son, and spirit are spoken of as “three persons” rather than “one person in relation to himself-in-the-other by means of yet-another”
16This being important so as to keep the formula in accord with scriptural and creedal language: All of Paul’s letters open with some variation on the first lines of the Nicene creed: “One God: The Father; and One Lord: his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ.”
17This can be understood in more or less exactly the same way that Catholics claim the divine justice to be analogically distinct from the divine mercy while also understanding both to be ontologically equivalent to each other and equivalent to divinity per se. A soteriological aside: All of this means that just as it is appropriate to say that in God the Father has complete precedence over the Son, so too it is possible to say – following St. Isaac of Nineveh – that in God, restorative mercy has total priority over retributive justice, and that therefore God’s graceful willing towards ἀποκατάστασις entirely trumps the massa damnata merited via the total depravity (cf. Romans 1-3) of mankind.
18Is 9:6 (RSV:CE)