Can Analytic Philosophers Fix the Doctrine of the Trinity?

coherentist_zps7681e4f3.GIFBloggers live to be read; but when another blogger actually writes an article in response to something one has published … well … that is cyberheaven. It’s like one’s very existence has been validated. So when Dale Tuggy responded to my article “Can Analytic Philosophers Be Saved?” I was nearly ecstatic, even before I had read it. I knew that no matter how critical the article (and I knew it would be critical), it would not be mean-spirited. And I was pleased to see my judgment confirmed.

Dale has titled his piece “Against Despising Analytic Theologians.” I disagree with the title, as it misrepresents my article. I certainly do not despise analytic theologians (of course, I only personally know a handful), and I certainly do not despise their philosophical work (of course, my reading in analytic philosophy is pretty limited). But I do have a real concern about the way analytic philosophers address the trinitarian and christological doctrines of the Church. I have read David Brown’s The Divine Trinity and Richard Swinburne’s The Christian God, and for a few years I tried to keep up with the journal Faith and Philosophy; but the material can be hard-going for those of us who lack the appropriate training. More importantly, I simply did not find it helpful to my own preaching and teaching—and that fact may be neither irrelevant nor unimportant. My interest in theology proportionately diminishes to the degree that it is disconnected to preaching and the life of prayer and service.

Let me first begin with confession: “Can Analytic Philosophers Be Saved?” may be accurately characterized as an exercise in hyperbole. Of course I am guilty of indulging in gross overgeneralization and oversimplification. Of course I have been unjust to many good and faithful analytic philosophers. I’m sure there are many who do not fall foul of my strictures (there must be—wink, wink). But I remain unrepentant. The title of my piece clearly announces the rhetorical form. Take the article for what it is—a blogger having some fun while at the same time trying to make a serious point. I could just as easily have chosen to make neo-scholastic theologians my target; but there are just so darn few of them today. It doesn’t seem right to tease a dying breed.

Dale writes: “A charge he makes by implication against analytic theologians (i.e. those trained in analytic philosophy who work on topics in Christian theology) is that like the ‘Arians’ of old, we suffer from … a triumphant rationalism antithetical to piety and the authentic exposition of Christian doctrine.” Given that analytic philosophers are known for their accuracy, I’d first like to say that I did not write “Arians of old.” I specifically cited Aetius and Eunomius. Dale knows even better than I that contemporary patristic scholarship prefers not to employ the term “Arian” to refer to Aetius and Eunomius, for their theological approach is quite different from that of Arius and earlier subordinationists. I chose these two men quite deliberately. In the eyes of their catholic critics, Aetius and Eunomius exemplified the triumph of philosophy and sophistry over divine revelation (see my series on Eunomius, beginning with “Understanding Eunomius”).

In response Dale writes: “Sorry, I just don’t see it at all. I see both deep and sincere piety and intense concern with being faithful to true tradition in all the analytic theologians I’ve known and/or studied. Surely, there are bad apples among us … but the same is true with other theologians.”

Dale’s response is off target. In my article I did not question the sincerity and piety of analytic philosophers nor accuse anyone of heterodoxy. I’m sure they go to church, read the Scriptures, and say their prayers. So I’m not talking about “bad apples.” I know that many Christian philosophers are far more orthodox than their fellow theologians. In fairness to Dale, though, I can see why he drew that inference, given that Aetius and Eunomius were condemned by the Church. But my concern is not false teaching per se but the subjection of God’s self-revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit to the quest for philosophical precision.

And this brings me to the heart of my concern. As far as I can tell, the theological reflections of (many) analytic theologians who write on the Holy Trinity do not appear to be appreciably informed by an understanding of divine incomprehensibility. Dale himself rejects the apophatic tradition (see, e.g., his article “On Positive Mysterianism”; also see James Anderson’s response, “Positive Mysterianism Undefeated”; for a philosophical discussion of divine ineffability, see Jonathan D. Jacobs, “Fundamentality and Apophatic Theology”; on the decisive significance of the via negativa, see Denys Turner, The Darkness of God).

Serious question: to what extent do Dale’s fellow analytic philosophers share his rejection of the apophatic tradition? (My guess, a lot.)

By rejecting, ignoring, or sidestepping the apophatic apprehension of God, analytic philosophers effectively alienate themselves from the very theological and spiritual tradition that originally formulated the dogma of the Holy Trinity. That won’t worry Dale, given his unitarian commitments; but it should worry those who do confess the orthodox doctrine.

Dale objects to my use of the word “rationalism” to describe what I think I see in the trinitarian reflections of analytic philosophers. I take his point. What I see as rationalism he and his colleagues no doubt see as rigorous philosophical analysis. Unlike some of my fellow Eastern Orthodox brethren, I do not reject philosophy out of hand. I may be incapable of such analysis (no one has ever accused me of being a rigorous thinker), but I respect and admire those who are able to do it. And to prove my point I reference the fact that I own eight (yes, eight!) of Richard Swinburne’s books. And I have actually read a couple of them. Reading is not understanding, alas. I also hope to read Thomas McCall’s Which Trinity? Whose Monotheism? later this year, so who knows? Perhaps I’ll be recanting in a few months.

The ecumenical dogma of the Holy Trinity is not a philosophical conundrum that needs to be solved. It is a theological formulation that faithfully mediates the Divine Mystery who can only be lived, prayed, and proclaimed. Until this is understood, the doctrine will always be seen, both inside and outside the Church, as a piece of unintelligible mystification with which we may easily dispense. As Dorothy Sayers once paraphrased the Athanasian Creed, from the layman’s point of view: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the whole thing incomprehensible.”

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15 Responses to Can Analytic Philosophers Fix the Doctrine of the Trinity?

  1. Can analytic philosophers fix anything?


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    TWIW, I have edited my piece and made some “improvements.” 🙂


    • nice bold. curious though, have you read avicenna? going through this book on islamic philosophy that i just picked up again today and found that apophatic theology is heavily ingrained into islamic thought yet somehow, the trinity is generally objected to via islamic rationalism.

      although i have also read that some islamic theologians would contend trinitarianism is okay for those outside of islamic faith.


  3. William says:

    “My interest in theology proportionately diminishes to the degree that it is disconnected to preaching and the life of prayer and service.”



  4. Terence says:

    But isn’t apothticism its self problematic? Speaking as someone who came to accept the Trinitarian understanding as a consequence of reading the gospels I have always been perplexed how saying for example ‘the Son is homoosios with the Father ‘ never mind other incredibly complex Christological and Trinitarian dogmas can have any meaning if we also have to accept with Pseudo Dionysus that we have no knowledge at all of God’s incomprehensible and ineffable transcendence.This seems to be linked with the doctrine of absolute divine simplicity.When you discussed this in a very interesting series of articles in connection with St Basil and Eunomius it almost seemed to me ( probably in my ignorance) that Eunomius’ conception of ADS corresponded more to what is now accepted as the orthodox form of this doctrine than the view put forward by St Basil, in terms of the doctrine its self. I do not refer to Eunomius’ claim that we can know God’s essence if we know the Divine name but his presentation of the doctrine of divine simplicity.I do apologize if I have totally misunderstood what is being said,which is highly likely ! The analytic philosopher William Hasker seems to have written an interesting study of these issues in his ‘Metaphysics and the Tri -personal God’, but at £62 this is presently beyond my budget !


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Greetings, Terence.

      There are of course different expressions of apophaticism within the Christian tradition (like you, I too have questions about Dionysius); but the point I wish to highlight is that the very same people who formulated and developed the doctrine of the Trinity also declared that we cannot know the essence of God. They did not see a conflict between the confession of God as Father, Son, and Spirit and the affirmation of divine incomprehensibility—quite the contrary. God’s trinitarian self-revelation does not diminish the ineffability of God; it intensifies it.

      Somehow folks have gotten the curious idea that we can have a doctrine of the Trinity without all the other patristic baggage. It’s analogous to having Scripture without the Church.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Terence, you may find of interest Eleonore Stump’s discussion of divine simplicity.


  5. I’m not a philosopher and have only rudimentary training in the field, so bear with me in this comment. One of the things I especially like about Orthodoxy, coming from a Catholic perspective, is that they are willing to accept a mystery as a mystery, rather than trying to analyze everything. It seems like that is the only approach a person can really live with. I agree with Dorothy Sayers, “the whole thing is incomprehensible.”


  6. Pingback: My Two Cents on Dale Tuggy and Fr. Aiden Kimel’s Debates | newenglandsun

  7. John says:

    The ultimate nature of the world and how it is arising is inherently and tacitly obvious, if you remain in a state of psycho-physical oneness with whatever and all that presently arises.

    To remain in a state of total psycho-physical oneness with whatever and all that presently arises, you must necessarily and always presently Realize Love-Blissful Unity with whatever and all that presently arises.

    Separation, or total psycho-physical contraction from the world or whatever and all that is presently arising is, unfortunately, precisely the first and constant, and inherently problematic thing done by ALL who make efforts to find out, or to account for, how rthe world is arising, and What Is its Ultimate Nature.


  8. Dale says:

    Nice job, Aiden. I have written a follow up – will come out on Feb 4. In it, I invite you to avoid the fate of this guy:


  9. Pingback: more on despising analytic theologians | Trinities

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