The Trinity (Thomas Joseph White)

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RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
White, Thomas Joseph. The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021.

This is the best book ever written on the Trinity. Not only is it intellectually superior to everything else, it illustrates how doctrines like divine simplicity increase our adoration.
As parts of this review can get quite technical, I will place the key points below and the reader can work through the rest accordingly.

1. immaterial processions in the Godhead form the basis for the economic missions.
2. the internal procession of the Son from the Father does not logically demand a separation of essence.
3. Eternal generation is a relation of origin.
4. persons are subsistent modes of being and relate to each other by way of origin.
5. Relation lets one affirm a distinction of persons without threatening the essence.

Like most accounts of the Trinity, White begins with the revelation of the one God in Israel. God established his identity in sacred history. We encounter a problem, however, as we examine how his covenant people reflected upon him. Some terms for God are metaphorical and some analogical. How do we tell the difference?

White notes five philosophical moments in Israel’s history (prior to the New Testament). We cannot play off metaphysical speculation against divine revelation. Divine revelation will not allow it.
  1. A form of Wisdom literature developed in Israel’s history.
  2. Isaiah’s use of ontological categories for the divine name: Isaiah 45:14-25 can be seen as a reflection upon Exodus 3:14.
  3. The LXX gave these passages a distinct metaphysical reading.
  4. Sirach and Wisdom, while not Scripture for Protestants, develop ideas of the afterlife and the soul’s immortality.
  5. 2nd Temple Judaism spoke clearly of protology and eschatology.

To be sure, the above does not prove the Trinity, but we see anticipations. God creates all things in his Wisdom. Is this wisdom analogical or metaphorical? If it is analogical, then it can be seen as a generation of a personal agent. There is evidence that it is. God’s Word is active in creation and prophecy; He is the principal of God’s action.

The rest of the first part follows the standard accounts of biblical evidence for the Trinity. For the sake of space, we will move to the Nicene and post-Nicene developments. The key idea for Trinitarian reflection is that the immaterial processions in the Godhead form the basis for the economic, if we even want to use that word, missions (129).

With Athanasius we see an important development in the concept of eternal generation: it is analogous to the intellect. For example, substance is not multiplied in the case of a thought from the mind. So it is with the Trinity: the internal procession of the Son from the Father does not logically demand a separation of essence.

Eternal generation is a relation of origin. The Cappadocian Fathers clarify this language. Gregory of Nazianzus says that terms like “Father” or “Son” designate a relationship, not an essence or activity (Gregory, Oration 29, quoted in White, 144). There is a connection between the difference of mutual relations and the difference of names (Oration 31).

So then, how do persons relate to the divine essence? The Cappadocians give us another phrase: persons are subsistent modes of being and relate to each other by way of origin (White 146). That is the most important sentence in the book. To the degree one is heretical or orthodoxy depends on whether one affirms that statement.

From personal relations of origin we now discuss personal or hypostatic characteristics: ingenerateness (or unbegotten), generation, and procession. You identify the persons of the Trinity by their relations of origin and the terms (above) that flow from them.

The main focus of the book, not surprisingly, is Thomas Aquinas. White begins this section by covering the standard arguments for the existence of God, but the main point for him, as it was for Thomas, was how they function in metaphysics. We reason quia, not propter quid; from effect, not from cause. We cannot reason quia because we do not know the essence of God.

Thomas then explains how we can name God analogically. Negative theology is not simply some New Age denying of everything in God, leaving us only with some vague essence to worship. Rather, we understand that God’s perfections are negative perfections. As White notes, every negation is a mental act upon the prior admission of something existent (221). We are denying the finite mode of our understanding of an attribute, not the attribute itself. This is the difference between the modus significandi, the term analogically applied, and the res ipsa significata, the reality signified.

Divine Simplicity

If we are going to deny composition in God, we need to embrace the other metaphysical issues which this entails. God is not dependent on anything else. So far, so good. He is Pure Act. Potentiality is a source of imperfection. God cannot have any potency in him. An actuation of potency implies a transformation. With this in mind, we can explore his attributes

Divine perfection: Matter is a source of potentiality and indeterminateness (261). This makes sense if you think about it. Matter needs shape. Matter by itself is potency. It needs something to form it. This, among other reasons, is why God cannot be material. This is why God is perfect.

Immutability: As God is infinite, he cannot acquire any new perfections.

Unity: a property of being (316). It is the absence of division. It follows from simplicity and perfection.

Prologue to a Thomistic Trinitarianism

There were three medieval Trinitarian models: the Franciscan or emanationist, the relationalist, and the nominalist. The Franciscans, so reads White’s analysis, began with the Father as principle and then moved to the begetting of the Son. The Father exists eternally in himself. The problem is this is a very close resemblance to a human person.

The relationalist model is the Thomist one. Relation lets one affirm a distinction of persons without threatening the essence (386). To wit, the Father is always “relative” to the Son by eternal generation. Moreover, God’s simplicity demands these relations be subsistent.

Hearkening back to the Cappadocian model, Thomas notes the processions in God are immanent to him. They are relations of origin. They are correlative terms that are opposite to one another. It makes sense how this works with Father and Son. It is not immediately clear how the Spirit can be “opposite” to two terms. Thomas uses the analogy of the human mind. The Son as intellect or Logos moves from the Father. The Son loves the Father (and the Father, the Son). The intellect precedes love. The love is the movement back. This is how the Father and Son spirate the Spirit (421).

From here White gives an excellent defense of the Filioque:
1) The Father emanates the Spirit as Father of the Son. The Son is “always already” there.
2) We can only know the persons by relations of origin.
3) The Son’s relation of origin is “from the Father.”
4) If the Spirit’s relation of origin is only from the Father, then he is identical to the Son.
5) Ergo, the Spirit proceeds from the Son.

This is the best book written on the Trinity. White also deals with modern Trinitarianism (Barth, Rahner, Bulgakov, Pannenberg). The modern Trinitarian movement reduces ontology to history and plays Hegel and Kant against one another (while using both). That is why we should look to the classical model.
 

Knight

Puritan Board Freshman
Do you mind trying to break down Thomistic divine simplicity for me? I confess that I have several points I struggle to follow.

1. In what sense is potentiality an "imperfection"? In a moral sense? That would sound gnostic, so I doubt that is what is meant, but can you elaborate on if White et al. explain this further?

2. I think all orthodox believers should hold that "God is not dependent on anything else." But does it follow from this that He must be pure act? Have you followed, for example, the recent Feser-Schmid discussion on this point?

"While Feser’s purpose in the passage is (principally, if not entirely) expository, it’s still worth assessing some of the claims in the passage—or, at least, assessing them from my epistemic vantage point. One such claim is that a first cause must be purely actual, for if it had passive potency, it could be acted on and, consequently, would no longer be first in the relevant sense. But there are several problems with this, even granting the dubious metaphysical backdrop involving act and potency, ontological pluralism, and the like.[28]

First, for all the reasoning here shows, the first cause could very well be an agent, God, with various passive potentials that could be actualized by God himself, i.e., by God’s exercise of agent-causal power. The various changes in creation would be explained by reference to God’s creating and sustaining activity, and God’s own passive potencies could be actualized by God qua agent cause. Agents actualize their own passive potentialities all the time—for instance, assuming agent-causal views in the metaphysics of action, I actualize my own passive potency to form intentions. (This doesn’t involve the passive potency itself pulling itself into actuality by its own bootstraps, of course.) God, here, is quite clearly a first cause, and yet he has passive potencies. So the absence of passive potencies doesn’t follow upon being a first cause. (At least, not for the reasons Feser here adumbrates.)"


3. How can God as pure act avoid various collapses (modal, property, etc.)? For example, if God's will is identical to His nature (contra Athanasius, Third Discourse Against the Arians, Chapter 30, paragraph 62), then doesn't necessitarianism follow?

Thanks in advance to you and others. I enjoy your book reviews.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Graduate
1. In what sense is potentiality an "imperfection"? In a moral sense? That would sound gnostic, so I doubt that is what is meant, but can you elaborate on if White et al. explain this further?

2. I think all orthodox believers should hold that "God is not dependent on anything else." But does it follow from this that He must be pure act? Have you followed, for example, the recent Feser-Schmid discussion on this point?
Jacob will probably answer well, but I remember being particularly helped in this area by Sproul’s series Ideas Have Consequences. I can’t remember which lesson it’s in, but he talks about actuality and potentiality as it relates to God in a very helpful way.
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
1. In what sense is potentiality an "imperfection"? In a moral sense? That would sound gnostic, so I doubt that is what is meant, but can you elaborate on if White et al. explain this further?

Imperfect only in the sense that matter without form is indeterminate. Imperfect in that it is open to change and improvement.
But does it follow from this that He must be pure act? Have you followed, for example, the recent Feser-Schmid discussion on this point?

I've followed the Feser-Mullins discussion, not so much Schmid. If God doesn't have any potentiality in him, then pure act seems to follow.
How can God as pure act avoid various collapses (modal, property, etc.)?

I understand the modal collapse challenge. That's probably the best rebuttal to Thomist simplicity. I'll be honest: I'm not ready to give a full response to it.
For example, if God's will is identical to His nature (contra Athanasius, Third Discourse Against the Arians, Chapter 30, paragraph 62), then doesn't necessitarianism follow?

That's a good question and probably, to me, the most challenging part of Discourse against the Arians.

Thanks for your tough questions. I'll try to work through them.
 

Knight

Puritan Board Freshman
Jacob will probably answer well, but I remember being particularly helped in this area by Sproul’s series Ideas Have Consequences. I can’t remember which lesson it’s in, but he talks about actuality and potentiality as it relates to God in a very helpful way.
I'll take a look, thanks. By the way, am I right in seeing that you are in an OPC church in Georgia? Did you also happen to be at the joint worship service yesterday?
 

Knight

Puritan Board Freshman
I've followed the Feser-Mullins discussion, not so much Schmid. If God doesn't have any potentiality in him, then pure act seems to follow.
I understand that if God is pure act, He would not be dependent on anything else.

My question, though, is: in order for God not to depend on anything else, does He need to be pure act? In other words, could there be potentiality in God yet it still be true that He does not depend on anything else? Obviously, this is not Thomistic simplicity, but if this is possible, then one argument for Thomistic simplicity is undercut.

Thanks again.
 

Tychicus

Puritan Board Freshman
Jacob will probably answer well, but I remember being particularly helped in this area by Sproul’s series Ideas Have Consequences. I can’t remember which lesson it’s in, but he talks about actuality and potentiality as it relates to God in a very helpful way.
I'll take a look, thanks.
In the book, it's chapter 3 on Aristotle, so it is probably the lesson on Aristotle.
 
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