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Avoiding a fourth

No (good) trinitarian theologian wants to have a fourth thing - a divine substance considered apart from the Three Persons.  But it's important to be aware that this error (effectively having a quaternity) has two versions.  There is a vulgar quaternity and a more insidious one.

The vulgar one looks like this:

Oneness and Threeness 1

Here is the "shamrock" trinity - three bits growing out of an underlying stuff.  In practice this is, roughly, how many unthinkingly view the trinity.  Such a vulgar quaternity is rightly rejected by theologians.  It can be seen immediately that the 'Godness of God' is considered at a completely different level to the three Persons in their roles and relations.  What makes God God is fundamentally impersonal attributes that may be expressed in the Persons but not constituted by their mutual inter-play.  So we can safely reject this version of things.

But I find that many theologians, having rejected the vulgar quaternity, congratulate themselves prematurely.  There is also the insidious quaternity to be dealt with.  There is another way of having a fourth...

Oneness and Threeness 2

Fundamentally this error consists in conceiving of the one God separately to a consideration of the three Persons in communion.  Recently I read a theologian say "God is both one and three - both a person and a community."  This is an example of the insidious quaternity.  One-ness and Three-ness are laid side by side to uphold a belief in the equal ultimacy of one and three.  Yet the one-ness of God is conceived of as a uni-personal one-ness - that is, it is separately considered to the multi-personal three-ness.  One and Three were not mutually interpreting truths but instead the 'one God' is thought of in non-communal (that is, non trinitarian) terms.

This is the approach taken by by so many doctrine of God text books where De Deo Uno (on the One God) is addressed prior to De Deo Trino (on the Trinity).   Yet, unless the two section are integrated at the deepest levels then there is grave danger of a fourth thing - i.e. "God plus Trinity" or "God apart from Trinity."

When this theological method is followed, often (not always but most times) section one unfolds such that the Three Person'd interplay takes no meaningful part in the discussions of the attributes.  Yet, typically, these attributes are asserted to be the virtue by which God is God.  On this view it is still possible to discuss the 'Godness of God' without reference to the perichoretic life of the Three.  Here One-ness and Three-ness are considered to be non-competing perspectives on the same God.  This effectively means that it is possible to speak in non-triune terms about the living God.  'God', then, is not the same thing as 'the Three Persons united in love'.

This is also a quaternity.  Just a more insidious one.

And the only way I can see to avoid this fourth thing is to side with the Cappodocians: God's being consists without remainder in the Three Person'd perichoresis .

Oneness Threeness 3b

The one-ness of God is not a simple divine essence but the very unity of the Three.  The being of God is not an underlying substance (contra the vulgar quaternity).  But nor is it a separately conceived essence (contra the insidious quaternity).  Rather God's being is the very communion by which the Three are One.

Trinity is not a perspective on the one God.  Rather the only God there is is trinity.  And the only way to conceive of Him is in triune terms.  'God' is 'Trinity'.  Unless this strict identity is maintained a fourth enters in.

Thus we must never conceive of the one God in any other terms than trinitarian ones.  (Re-write the text-books!).  God's being is in His communion (to use Zizioulas's phrase).  His One-ness is in His communion.  And (let's not forget) His Three-ness is in His communion - the Three are only who they are in this eternal perichoresis.   To put it another way: God is love.



This is a re-working of an older post on One-ness and Three-ness.

0 thoughts on “Avoiding a fourth

  1. bobby grow


    Excellent. I like the diagrams you have used here. What is it that you think defines the oneness of God? In other words, I understand the perichoresis, but what is the interpenetrating reality between the persons that we can say that God is one? If we say love, then how does love avoid being ' the fourth'?in other words love seems to be an abstraction which determines or defines God being.

    Just trying to be a little critical...

  2. Dave K

    Thanks for this and your comment on my blog. This post is especially clear and helpful as Dan says.

    I've been reading a bit of stuff by Gregory of Nyssa. I'm not picking up the stuff you are attributing to the Cappodocians in him. In 'On the Holy Trinity, and of the Godhead of the Holy Spirit' and 'On "Not Three Gods"' he seems to find the unity shown in the inseparable operation of the three persons. Is there anywhere in particular that the Cappodocians talk in the same way as you. They seem to especially concerned about the incomprehensible nature of God, which seems to make it quite difficult to talk about trinity in the way you do.

    If we emphasise the inseparable operation, as well as taking to account the begotteness of the Son, and the procession of the Holy Spirit, do we not see something more like a thread a binding together all three through a united outward movement which is a less static God than your second diagram?

    Also when we are considering God through his operations, and asymmetric is it not easier to see how from the outside we receive grace from the one God, without the trinity being clear until we can actually be drawn into that divine community when Christ came in the flesh? So you are right that we should rewrite the text books, but not because it is non-Christian to start with the one God, but because it is sub-Christian when in the revelation of the Son we know much more.

    Hmmm, no doubt half of what I am saying is wrong, but I am appreciating the opportunity to ask questions.

    I'll keep on thinking, and I'll get to replying to your comment on my blog soon.

    Thanks for the thoughts, and making it so clear to understand for a novice.

  3. glenscriv

    Thanks Dan (love to hear your thoughts on the sermon jottings I put on your blog).

    Bobby and Dave - brilliant questions! Thank you both for being critical.

    Bobby, I guess there's inevitably a third kind of 'fourth' (if that's not too confusing). But I hope it's a benign fourth. By that I mean, there will always be some virtue by which you conceive of the Three as belonging together. What I'm suggesting is that the one-ness is an already inherent unity *of* the Three rather than a one-ness brought in to unify the Three.

    When we study the Persons, this involves us unavoidably in the communion by which the Persons are who they are. (The Son is Son because begotten by the Father etc etc). So on my view, the Three are Three by the exact same virtue that the Three are One - their mutually constituting eternal relations. In this way love is really not outside the Persons any more than the Persons are outside the Persons. They themselves have their 'hypostasis in ekstasis'. They are who they are in going outside themselves and into the Others. There is not a glue in between the Persons called 'love' (that would start to look like a fourth) but rather (mysteriously) they are IN one another! And to this mutual indwelling we give the name perichoresis and say that this is the virtue by which they are One. But really we haven't introduced an added element to the Three. This perichoresis is intrinsically part of who the Three are already. One-ness (on this view) is simply a description of how we find the Three (that is, that they are united).

    On the other hand, the kind of (cancerous) fourths I'm opposing are ones where the virtue by which the Three are One is gained by looking apart from the Three. On these views it is possible to speak of the One God without speaking of the Persons in their mutual relations. One-ness is not at all the unity of the Three but something else (subsistence in the simple divine essence or whatever). This is most certainly a cancerous fourth.

    I guess it boils down to this: I'm proposing a one-ness *of* the Three. I'm opposing a one-ness underneath or apart from the Three. One-ness for me is a description of who the Three are. One-ness for many western trinitarians seeks a unifying concept beyond the Three.

    The great virtue of the eastern methodology is that the answers to the three key trinitarian questions are all the same:

    By what are the Three divine? The relations in which they stand to one another.
    By what are the Three distinct Persons? The relations in which they stand to one another.
    By what are the Three One? The relations in which they stand to one another.

    The eastern trinitarian never looks away from the Three to discuss either deity, difference or one-ness. All trinitarian theology is then descriptive of how we find these Three in the Gospel. Therefore there is no foreign concept of one-ness to be brought in apart from what we find studying the Three in the Gospel.

    Wish I could articulate better "what is this earth thing called love?" (as the Star Trek alien would say), but I think 'hypostasis in ekstasis' is about as good as it gets in theology! It's not an extra thing added to the being of the Persons but the very essence of their out-going, inter-penetrating, self-emptying existence. And it's this "Person-in-outgoingness" that defines who the Persons are *and* what the Oneness is.

    Hi Dave,

    Inseparable operations *is* communion/perichoresis/mutual-relations as seen in God's economic activity (that is His outward works in creation-redemption). You're right to mention 'asymmetry' in this as the cause of the 'outflow' of these relations into creation. So the Father always works through the Son and by the Spirit. The initiation is with the Father, the execution is with the Son, the empowering and perfection of it is with the Spirit. Again, everything God does is from the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit. This is the inseparable operation of the trinity and it is simply the outflow of the mutual life of the Persons.

    Thus to say 'inseparable operations' is *not* to say 'we encounter only a singularity in creation and redemption'. It is, rather, to say 'we encounter the Three working in perfect unity.' The doctrine of inseparable operations is often cast as "we only see one, but behind that one there are Three." That is the very opposite of the case. A true doctrine of inseparable operations says "we see Three in the economy, but they are utterly united in these acts."

    Therefore I'll have to disagree with your statement:

    "from the outside we receive grace from the one God, without the trinity being clear until we can actually be drawn into that divine community when Christ came in the flesh"

    So I don't think it's a case of 'from the outside' seeing only One and then getting drawn into Three. Instead on the outside we see Three and then by the 'two hands of the Father' (Irenaeus' phrase) we get drawn into the triune life (which is a life of one-ness - not singularity but communion).

    You have, though, identified my chief beef with the eastern side:

    "They seem to especially concerned about the incomprehensible nature of God, which seems to make it quite difficult to talk about trinity in the way you do."

    Yes indeed. This is the problem with the east (which I've hinted at elsewhere). They are not really sold on the whole "The economic trinity reveals the immanent trinity" - which, for me, ought to be a basic tenet of revealed theology. For me, and more usually for the west, what you see in God is what you get. If He's revealed as Father sending Son and Father *and* Son sending Spirit, then that's a revelation of the deepest depths of the triune life. For the east, they have the immanent trinity lying mysteriously behind the economic trinity. What you see aint necessarily what you get.

    So it's not a case of east = good guys, west = bad guys. It's a case of being mature enough to take the best of both. From east I take the methodology of Three first. From the west I take the maxim "the economic trinity is the immanent trinity."

  4. glenscriv

    Thanks Dave,

    Been great to interact. Whenever I've been thinking of our discussions I keep thinking of John 1:18:

    "No-one has *ever* seen God, but God, the Only Begotten (One and Only) who is at the Father's side, has made Him known."

    'God' at the start of the verse refers, I think you'll agree, to the 'Father' (as is made explicit in the second half of the verse). Yet He has never been seen. Only ever in the Only Begotten God has the Father been made known. Revelation has always been mediated in the Son. It's never been a case of 'God' being revealed and then the trinity. As soon as you've said 'revelation is always the Only Begotten God mediating the unseen God' haven't you said revelation is always triniatarian?

  5. bobby grow


    I too thank you for your response . . . I don't know though, sometimes I have problems with the eastern approach as well. I'm still thinking ;-) .

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