Q&A: Why Does God Consist Of Only Three Persons?




Evan, thank you for taking the time to post my letter and reply in detail on your blog. I think we're both in agreement that a defense of God's morality requires more than just an appeal to his sovereignty, and so you've explained some other arguments for why God is good and my hypothetical "Bad God" cannot exist. I appreciate the thoughtful response.

I have some questions about The Ontological Argument as applied to the Holy Trinity.

I assume you would agree that it is metaphysically possible that the Maximal Greatest Being is a Godhead in three persons, the way most Christians conceive of God but not for example Jews or Muslims. And I assume you would agree that being in multiple persons does not necessarily divide nor diminish the perfection of the Godhead, for the full measure of greatness ascribed to any one person in the Godhead is also ascribed to the other persons.

So what is so great about there being exactly three persons in the Godhead? Wouldn't four or more omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent persons (with whatever other greatest qualities besides number) in eternal relation to each other be at least as great? Certainly, four is greater in number than three. And for any number of persons in the Godhead that can be conceived, you can find a number of persons greater than it, through higher orders of infinity which mathematicians never seem to exhaust in their conception. So how many persons would a Maximal Greatest Godhead have?

If a Godhead in four or more persons is greater than one in three, then how could the Holy Trinity be the Maximal Greatest Godhead?

If a Godhead in four or more persons does not exist in any possible world, what logically precludes the possibility? Unlike a square circle or a married bachelor, the concept appears to be logically possible, or at the very least as logically possible as one in three persons.

If a Godhead in four or more persons is not as great as a Godhead in three persons, what makes three persons a "greater" number than four?

If possible Godheads with different numbers of persons are equally great (for example, if the number of persons does not impact overall greatness), then how could there be one necessary Maximal Greatest Godhead shared by all possible worlds?

- D. J

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I'm glad my response satisfied your objection, D.J. Your questions reveal to me that you are a very thoughtful individual, and you've sent yet again another good question. I would certainly argue, and indeed have argued in writings like Inference To The One True God and in its upcoming revision "The Case For The One True God" (I expect to get it out by late 2019) that in order for a Maximally Great Being (MGB) to BE Maximally Great, He must consist of more than one person. This is because, in possible worlds in which there exist no other beings but the MGB himself, he could not possibly be loving, and if he isn't loving, he wouldn't be morally perfect, and if he isn't morally perfect then he would not be Maximally Great. A triune being could be loving even in the absence of other beings, for there would be a loving relationship going on within himself. The Father loves The Son, The Son loves The Father, The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love, and so on. This is why I said in Inference To The One True God ((which I'd be willing to send you for free given that you're an atheist)) that The God demonstrated to exist by the Ontological Argument must be a God that consists of more than one person, unlike the unitarian Gods of Judaism and Islam, or any of the polytheistic deities like Thor. While you'll find many of the MGB's omni attributes in a unitarian conception of God as in Judaism and Islam, you won't find any religion on the face of the planet who has a conception of a multi-personal God. Since this is the kind of God the Ontological Argument entails, that suggests that they are one and the same, and The God of The Bible exists in the actual world.

Now, your question is; why stop at just 3? Why not 4? Why not 5 or 6 or 100? Why are there only 3 persons in the Godhead? This is a good question and I wouldn't pretend to have the answer. Perhaps it's merely a brute fact about God ((EDITING NOTE: the mere proposal of this alternative has evoked some outraged among some of my Christian readers.
Do note that this is the most problematic of the 4 proposals and I do not recommend holding to this option)). Perhaps God cannot possibly consist of more than one person for some ontological or metaphysical reason that only God knows about, which future philosophers may or may not discover.

But would God be a greater being if He consisted of more persons? As stated above, he certainly needs to consist of more than one person to be Maximally Great, but would a Holy Quaternity be ontologically greater than a Holy Trinity? Would a Holy Octonary be greater than a Holy Quaternity?

I would say that the number of persons wouldn't impact the greatness of God in any way. In order to be a Maximally Great Being, God must have all great making qualities and have them to the greatest extent possible. Power, moral goodness, knowledge, existence, presence, etc. to the greatest extent possible. To have the moral goodness to its utmost perfection, I have argued, God must exist as more than one person. This way, the MGB can be expressing love even if the MGB is the only being in existence. But a being consisting of 1,000 persons would get the job done just as well as a being consisting of only 3. In a Godhead consisting of a thousand distinct persons, there would be a love relationship between the persons just as between a triune Godhead. Therefore, I don't think the number of persons in the Godhead would affect the greatness to any extent, except for numerical quantities of persons.

The toughest question is this one; "If a Godhead in four or more persons does not exist in any possible world, what logically precludes the possibility? Unlike a square circle or a married bachelor, the concept appears to be logically possible, or at the very least as logically possible as one in three persons."

Given that the Maximally Great Being is maximally great in every single possible world, this means that any other types of Maximal Beings cannot exist in every single possible world. Why? Because, by definition, the Maximally Great Being is omnipotent. If He’s omnipotent then that means that nothing exists outside of His creative power. But that means that a Four-Person-Godhead or a thousand-person-Godhead are in the creative power of the triune Godhead, and the triune Godhead could have refrained from creating the four-person Godhead or thousand-person-Godhead in some possible worlds. Therefore, four-personality or thousand-personality deities are not necessarily instantiated in every single possible world. These multiple person gods don’t exist in some possible worlds; namely, the ones where the triune God chooses not to create them.

When reasoning through this objection though, I can anticipate a follow-up objection; "Why say that a thousand-personal being isn't instantiated on these grounds? Maybe a thousand-personal being is instantiated in all possible worlds and the 3-personal being isn't because he would be in the creative power of the former?" Why give priority to the tri-personal MGB over the thousand-personal MGB?

Some may suggest an appeal to Ockam's Razor; the scientific principle that says that you shouldn't posit more explanatory agents than what is absolutely required. Though if we do that, we should conclude that a binary God (a God consisting of only 2 persons) is preferable to a trinitarian God. And besides, I'm not sure that bringing in Ockam's Razor is appropriate in a topic that concerns modal logic anyway. We're dealing with what is logically possible and necesarry, not what is the best explanation for an observed phenomenon.

Appeal to biblical revelation won't help either, though in the case of natural theology it shouldn't be done, as natural theology's purpose is to demonstrate God without the use of scripture. But even if we brought it in, it would do no good. The Bible doesn't say anything that would forbid us from concluding that God might possibly consist of one extra person He hasn't told us about. The reason we don't go beyond the three is that we have no reason to. We wouldn't and shouldn't conclude God consists of an extra person unless we have some good reason to (like new revelation).

Perhaps the best way to go about it is that there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, morally perfect, necessary Being who consists of multiple persons in all possible worlds, but what the precise number of those persons are, we do not know. Whether he consists as more than three, he certainly can consist of no less than three. Whatever MGB exists, be he a tri-personal or thousand-personal being, then no other multi-personal being exists in all possible worlds given that they would be within the creative power of whatever multi-personal necessary being that does exist in all possible worlds.

Whatever we conclude of the multi-personality of God, we should not miss the fact that the modal Ontological Argument does appear sound, and also that it entails a conception of God that you won't find in any other religion on the face of the planet. The idea that there could be one deity who consists of more than one person can only be found in the Christian tradition. And, as I argue in the revised edition of Inference To The One True God, this provides a good reason for thinking The Bible's authors, as opposed to the Quran's or those of the Buddhist scriptures, were divinely inspired. After all, what are the odds that they would simply guess all the qualities of this Maximally Great Being by chance? A better explanation is that the MGB that exists in the actual world communicated with these authors.

I hope this helps as much as the last one.

If you have any questions about Christian theology or apologetics, send Mr. Minton an E-mail at CerebralFaith@Gmail.com. It doesn't matter whether you're a Christian or Non-Christian, whether your question is about doubts you're having or about something you read in The Bible that confused you. Send your question in, whatever it may be, and Mr. Minton will respond in a blog post just like this one. 

Comments

  1. I do not think we want to say that the trinity is a "brute fact," because then God is mutable, and he does not even know why. And it really, fundamentally, compromises the heart of Christianity - which is what the atheist was getting at. Honestly, I think you gave him exactly the answer he was looking for. With all due respect, to say that the trinity is a brute fact is sloppy.

    We should be careful when apologetics trespasses into theology. Theology is not something that we can just do at the armchair. It requires careful research and consideration. Theologians have discussed these issues for centuries.

    If you want a modern, philosophical examination of the trinity, consider Was Jesus God? by Richard Swinburne. He actually directly answers the question the atheist asks.

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    1. You seem to be reading more into my responses than I intended. My answer can basically be boiled down "I don't know what would logically preclude God from existing consisting of more than 3 persons, but he certainly cannot be a Uunitarian God. Because if he were, he wouldn't be morally perfect, therefore not a perfect being."

      Why God doesn't consist of more than one person, I don't know. That may be one of the deep mysteries of God I don't know this side of the grave. The things in the article were things I listed simply as possible explanations that one could clamp on to. I don't attach myself to any one of them. If they're problematic, dismiss them. You pointed out that the brute fact explanation is problematic and with good reason, so I shall not accept that.

      Moreover, when I said that God "could be more than three" persons, that was an epistemic "could", not an ontological one. It was a "He could consist of more than three FOR ALL WE KNOW". I don't think He does, but why he doesn't is a mystery. The main point of my conclusion that there exists a multi-personal God in all possible worlds, and any other type of God consisting of a different number of persons than MGB that exists in all possible worlds cannot itself exist in all possible worlds because he would be in the creative power of the former. Maybe there is some reason why the persons of the Trinity cannot exceed 3, but I don't know what it is. Don't fault me fire that. But what I do know is that an MG B certainly cannot consist of fewer than 3.

      Ultimately, my point was that an inability to answer this question doesn't affect the conclusion of The Ontological Argument; that it is possible that a multi-personal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, morally perfect Being exists in all possible worlds including the actual one.

      Thank you for the book recommendation, btw. I'll be sure to check it out.

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    2. I think it’d be better to say “I don’t know” or just not taking the question. Speculating about the trinity when it’s not your area of expertise isn’t helpful. It’s sort of like if someone sent me a question about quantum physics. I wouldn’t reply with armchair speculation. I’d say “I don’t know, as a physicist.”

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    3. Also I see that you made an editorial note. I don’t really think that’s good enough for this. The brute fact explanation for the trinity shouldn’t be presented as a “possible alternative” in any context, even if you “don’t recommend it.” It’s literally your final conclusion of this post. I think you should delete this post and not address this sort of question.

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    4. No, it isn't. And I've told you as much in another thread. But seeing as how that paragraph is so confusing to your mind, I've reworded the paragraph to make my point more explicit. Hopefully you'll be happy with this and no one else will inadvertently misrepresent what I said.

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    6. https://soundcloud.com/tony-lee-ross-jr/diss-track

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    7. Yes hopefully nobody misapplied what you’ve said, thinking your conclusion is “Perhaps the best way to go about it is that there exists a perfect, necessary Being who consists of multiple persons in all possible worlds, but what the precise number of those persons are, we do not know. ”

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  2. Interesting article. I’ve read your other one making a philosophical case for the trinity and have also listened to WLC’s argument.

    In regard this as an example of the basic crux of your philosophical case for the trinity:
    “This is because, in possible worlds in which there exist no other beings but the MGB himself, he could not possibly be loving, and if he isn't loving, he wouldn't be morally perfect, and if he isn't morally perfect then he would not be Maximally Great. A triune being could be loving even in the absence of other beings, for there would be a loving relationship going on within himself. The Father loves The Son, The Son loves The Father, The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love, and so on.”

    I just see no reason to believe that this is the case. It certainly isn’t logically incoherent to deny such an assertion. What compelling reason is there to believe that it is inconceivable that Almighty God existed alone before he created Jesus (through whom all other things were created)?

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    1. "I just see no reason to believe that this is the case. It certainly isn’t logically incoherent to deny such an assertion. " -- I see nothing here but personal incredulity. Explain to me how a single person existing by himself with no other persons around could be loving? In possible worlds in which a unitarian God alone exists, how could He be expressing the attribute of love?

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    2. I like to be able to understand where people are coming from, but I'm having trouble here. Such an argument holds no initial plausibility to me and I find this interesting. By contrast, arguments like the Kalam have an initial plausibility even for atheists. But it's only after engaging in high level philosophical reasoning that they attempt a way out of the premises.

      You make this point:

      "Explain to me how a single person existing by himself with no other persons around could be loving? In possible worlds in which a unitarian God alone exists, how could He be expressing the attribute of love? "

      My counterpoint here is that I don't see love in this way. It is by no means self-evident that it is this way to me. I do see love - as you point out what you mean by it according to 1 Cor. 1:13 - as having an element of potentiality to it. The capacity to engage in a loving act can exist regardless of whether there is anyone else around to be made the object of that love. This is what I'm trying to get my head around in trying to see your point. I appreciate the engagement here. Because I am interested in philosophy and have heard this argument from WLC I am interested in understanding it. But it may be the case that the premises plausibility seem true only according to one's background knowledge, i.e. one's previous acceptance of the trinity.

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    3. just a little edit here on my first paragraph:

      By contrast, arguments like the Kalam have an initial plausibility even for atheists. But it's only after engaging in high level philosophical/scientific reasoning that professional philosophers/scientists attempt a way out of the premises.

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    4. I agree that the argument's conclusion isn't self-evident. However, surely whether an argument is good isn't due to the fact that it's as plain as the nose on your face. Otherwise, lots of scientific truths would have to be abandoned, from Darwinian Evolution to heliocentrism. I guess that's not a good comparison if you're skeptical of the former. But hopefully you see my point.

      Now, you said "I do see love - as you point out what you mean by it according to 1 Cor. 1:13 - as having an element of potentiality to it. The capacity to engage in a loving act can exist regardless of whether there is anyone else around to be made the object of that love. " But as I pointed out, love is more than mere potential actuality. Sure, a unitarian God could be have all the potential to love perfectly in worlds in which he and he alone exists, and He would be perfectly displaying this love in worlds in which he creates other beings. However, as I argue in the yet-to-be-released revision of my book "Inference To The One True God", it seems intuitive to me that a being who is engaged in love is a greater being than one who has the mere potential to love. God can be omnipotent in a world in which nothing but He exists because power is mere actuality. It is a modal property. Omnipotence is the ability to do anything that is logically possible. If you are omnipotent, it means you CAN do anything, not that you WILL do everything you are able to do.

      In a possible world in which the unitarian God exists, ((I'm following the love formula of 1 Cor 13 here) he could have the potential to be kind, but he would not be actually showing kindness. He would have the potential to be patient, but there would be no one to be patient with. He would not be proud, but lack of pride is hardly praiseworthy when there's no one to compare yourself to. What we find when we think of a unipersonal god in a world where no one else exists is a god incapable of doing any of the things described in 1 Corinthians 13. What we find is a god who is not love. At least not in worlds where he doesn't decide to create Jesus or someone else.

      Fun fact: C.S Lewis posed this argument long before Craig did. And Peter Kreeft has made this argument too. :-)

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    5. Thank you for your response. It is an interesting argument I can say that. As you lay out your case I am starting to come to the view that my view of love is of a similar nature to how I view the property of power as having a potentiality to it. Intuitively I am having trouble seeing a distinction between the nature of the two. I suppose I am just restating my position but I appreciate extra points you've provided. If you are ever in Vancouver BC I'd be willing to chat more in person.

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  3. As an example, God is all-powerful. Using the same reasoning I’d have to conclude that God could not be all-powerful without having created anything. You have claimed in another post that there is some difference between this and God being all-loving, but I simply don’t see why one should accept the argument for the differentiation between the two! Why would one be compelled to accept the, by no means self-evident, differentiation you’ve made? I can only conclude that this is a weak deductive argument that lacks a compelling reason to accept the premises (unlike the Kalam where, as an example, premise one relies on the high plausibility of ex nihilo nihil fit being a necessary truth).

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    1. The difference is that power is a modal property; what one can and cannot do. Love isn't mere potentiality. If one is not expressing love, there is no love.

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    2. I think it's important to understand that love, contrary to cultural opinion, is not warm fuzzy feelings, but a verb. Check 1 Corinthians 13 for example, and you'll find very little about feelings and much to with action.

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  4. I prefer to think that the question by Evan of God times four and beyond is genuine and sincere. Nonetheless I believe it reflects some very common elements in the discussion about God. Ironically it is what is shared in common, even if they do not acknowledge it, between so-called trinitarians and so-called unitarians.

    What they share in common is that they both, like Evan, apply a numeric quantification value to the term one, as in, "the LORD is one" from the Shema in Deuteronomy 6. Another attempt in the struggle to understand the God whom we love is to refer to Him as a person or persons as though this were helpful. Yes, the God who is spirit did take on human form (Philippians 2) but this no more makes Him a person than a man. Yes, I am aware that my quaint and terse statement is open for discussion for another time on that point. Yes, I am aware of the plural forms in the Shema in reference to God and how God makes reference to Himself in the plural form numerous times as in Isaiah 6. The efforts to refer to God as a person or persons may reflect the struggle of the saints to understand, but I believe it is self evident that it falls short and the saints remain in a state of anxiety about the God whom they love.

    The apostle Paul does reveal for us in chapter one of Ephesians, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Even more importantly Paul details for us what 1) the Father PURPOSED before the foundation of the world, 2) that the Son REDEEMED us when the Son fulfilled what the Father had purposed, and 3) that the Holy Spirit SEALS, or affirms, those who have believed in the Son. This purpose, fulfillment and affirmation is what each and every human being whether or not they are theist or atheist characterizes their life every single day and moment of their day. This is not to say that everyone lays out deliberately or consciously what they purpose for their day or that they will fulfill what they purpose or that they affirm or acknowledge that they fulfilled what they purposed, but that is as undeniable, or hard to deny, as breathing.

    This purpose, fulfillment and affirmation is something which the scientist who examines over and over phenomenon near and far will never see. What the scientist sees is cause and effect.

    So merely increasing by one or as to some exponential value the number of so-called persons of God can hardly be expected to result in an understanding of one, three or four. There are numerous manifestations throughout the scriptures of how God revealed Himself or made Himself, that is, His purpose, fulfillment and affirmation known as much for those who seek and know Him as for those who deny Him and suppress the truth.
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