William Hasker, Orthodoxy, and the Social Trinity

When I was in seminary, I read Leonard Hodgson’s book The Doctrine of the Trinity. Hodgson was a pioneer in what has come to be known as the social model of the Trinity. I no longer own my copy of the book, and so am unable to provide a substantive quotation; but as I recall, Hodgson advanced the proposition that each divine person must be understood as analogous to a human person, that is to say, an intelligent, purposive center of consciousness. The trinitarian persons form a divine community perfectly bound together in mutual love and self-giving.

I ate this stuff up back then, even though it went against everything my theology professor, Fr James Griffiss, was teaching us (he was a big fan of Rahner, Tillich, and Macquarrie). My exegesis and preaching of the gospel narratives confirmed, so I believed, the social construal of the Trinity: there is Jesus, whom the Father acknowledges as his Son (“You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased”), and there is the God of Israel, to whom Jesus prays, “Abba, Father.” Sure sounds like a conversation to me. All gospel preachers, I suggest, are closet social trinitarians. All we need to do is to throw in the Spirit, and we have a three-person family. My convictions were further confirmed by my readings in Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann.

Even when I became Orthodox I did not suspect that anything might be awry. With his emphasis on personhood John Zizioulas sure reads like a social trinitarian, and Dumitru Stăniloae speaks of the perichoresis of the three divine subjects: “In the perfect unity of the Trinity the consciousness of the other two subjects, and thereby the very subjects themselves who bear that consciousness, must be perfectly comprised and transparent in the consciousness of each subject” (The Experience of God, I:256). On first reading both Zizioulas and Stăniloae sound like social trinitarians, and certainly Zizioulas has been read by others as belonging to that camp.

But then two years ago I started to read the primary trinitarian sources of the fourth century, as well as some secondary scholarship. And I have begun to question. Don’t get me wrong. I resist attempts to imprison theology in inherited constructions. We cannot be faithful to the gospel if we merely reiterate traditional formulae. But I do want to see real continuity between, say, St Gregory of Nyssa and John Zizioulas … or William Hasker.

And all of this is by way of introduction to Dale Tuggy’s interview of Dr William Hasker. Hasker, like Tuggy, belongs to the analytic school of philosophy. As you know, I have questions regarding the helpfulness of analytic philosophy in the presentation of Christian dogma. I have not yet read Hasker’s new book on the Trinity, Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God (I’m hoping the publisher will eventually offer an affordable paperback); but I have to raise the question whether social trinitarianism faithfully presents the catholic faith of the Church.

Do listen to the interview. I will link to part 2 of the interview as soon as it is available.

In his book The Quest for the Trinity, Stephen Holmes argues that much of the 20th century revival in trinitarian doctrine in fact represents a significant departure from patristic commitments. He particularly zeroes in on the misinterpretation of the Cappadocians as social trinitarians. Zizioulas, I think, might agree:

In patristic thought, the person is not the center or subject of consciousness or of psychological experiences. This is apparent from the following highly significant observation: the persons of the Holy Trinity have only one will, only one “consciousness,” and—if the term may be permitted—”psychological experience.” In reality, all the things that in personalism constitute essential elements in the concept of the person are connected by the Fathers with the nature or essence of God, in other words, with what is common to the three Persons and not what is different. In other words, these are not hypostatic-personal properties that define the concept of the person, but properties relating to the essence or the nature of God. (The One and the Many, p. 21).

The Greek Fathers insisted that memory, knowledge, will and love are not individuated between the persons of God but common to them all. They understood that to confer individual psychological attributes upon the persons of God may lead to the projection of creaturely characteristics onto God. (John Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, p. 69)

I have lots and lots of questions. The debate is often presented as a choice between social trinitarianism and modalism. But the patristic doctrine does not fit into either category.

(Go to part two of the Hasker interview)

This entry was posted in Holy Trinity and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to William Hasker, Orthodoxy, and the Social Trinity

  1. tgbelt says:

    I read Hasker’s book a few months ago. Need to get back to it. Well-written. But he did come across definitely as a ‘social’ trinitarian.


  2. my issues are with the notion of the holy spirit and its distinctness apart from the son and father in the trinity. hence, more like a binity vs. trinity crisis.


  3. tgbelt says:

    Not just “come across” as, but explicitly so.


  4. tgbelt says:

    I’m a bit snowed in this morning, so I’ve got some time. Couple more comments. Sorry for the length.

    Listen to Dale’s question to Hasker at 7:10 about his understanding of the Nicene Creed. Hasker answers (3` ‘personal subjects’, ‘personal agents’, ‘individuals who cognate’, ‘who have voliltion and who act’…there are “three of those”). This, Hasker says, is the “core idea of social trinitarianism.” But later Hasker admits that none of these Fathers was a social trinitarian. A couple of them at best were pro-Social. So it seems a bit strange to say those who wrote Nicaea were not STs but then agree that I affirm THEIR Creed as affirming ST. I don’t get that. Dale asks about Nicaea and he answers with ST.

    What prevents this from being 3 gods is just the “one substance/nature.” But nothing whatsoever is said about this “nature” to make God conceivably “one” God. Everything commonly associated with ‘nature’ (mind, will) is divided and distributed and distributed among the three. There’s nothing left conceptually to account for the divine unity. This seems strange because Hasker agrees that what the terms “person” and “nature” mean when used of us have to be roughly equivalent when used of God to make sense as God-talk at all. So it’s confusing that he affirms one divine ‘nature’ but then multiplies features presumably associated with that nature (like ‘mind’ and ‘will’) to three.

    On a related note, there’s the question of the oft repeated claim that the Creeds are effectively only negative statements that define terms in which the faith “cannot” be said, clarifying errors to avoid, and that in positive terms they’re semantically vacuous. Hence as long as you’re using the token “3 persons 1 nature/substance” you’re affirming Nicaea even if your understanding of those terms and the way you employ them ends up being something the Fathers who wrote Nicaea would have rejected.

    And this brings up another thorny issue—the contributions of modern psychology (viz., our understanding of identity, personal experience, ‘relationality as constitutive of personal being’ [as opposed to seeing ‘relations’ as “accidents” to “substance” in Aristotelian terms]) and how Orthodoxy ought to (or ought not to) integrate this coherently into the Tradition, i.e., faithfully restate what is at the heart of the Creeds in fresh terms. I love what Fr Schmemann (former dean of St. Vladimir’s) wrote: “Orthodox theology must keep its patristic foundation, but it must also go beyond the Fathers if it is to respond to a new situation created by centuries of philosophical development. And in this new synthesis or reconstruction, the Western philosophical tradition…rather than the Hellenic, must supply theology with its conceptual framework. An attempt is thus made to ‘transpose’ theology into a new ‘key’.”

    This is just my non-Orthodox opinion, but I think the Orthodox should be on the FRONT lines of integrating the insights of ‘Personalism’. It would have to be done critically for sure. Not everything would make it in. But just to decry the ‘integration’ of it per se because it’s an integration seems to betray what the Fathers themselves were doing in the Creeds—just like Shmemann said. I don’t know who out there in Orthodox is even trying to do this. I thought Zizioulas was (bringing Existentialism into conversation with Orthodoxy). But your quotes of Zizioulas suggest otherwise. There’s Yanneras who is doing the same. Maybe Aristotle Papanikolaou. I don’t know. I’m just saying, at its heart ‘Personalism’ is nothing but the expression of a longing definitive of us as human beings, the claim that reality as we observe and experience it is irreducibly ‘related’ or ‘relational’. Surely participation in the divine being is our salvation because divine being already is the fullest (and, yes, transcendent) of all that we existentially long for. But maybe just saying that much is unorthodox. Still, I think the Orthodox should be all over this (‘Personalism’) and not just condemning it as sappy, modern sentimentalism. Let the Creeds provide the guide, yes. We don’t want to say God is three instances of precisely HOW human beings experience ‘personal’ existence as distinct/divided “individuations” (Hasker used the word of the divine Persons and that bothered me). But why couldn’t we express a trinitarian monotheism in personalist terms that expresses the life of the One God as “personal,” “dynamic,” “relational,” “mutually loving,” or “an ecstatic giving-and-receiving” etc.? I get this sometimes in David Hart and a few others, but sometimes with a caveat that reads something like, “Well, yeah, God is all this, but IN NO WAY is this ANYTHING like what these words mean to us.” Well, why use the words? Why not use contrary words and say “God is static and unrelated, a metaphysical block, an unblinking cosmic stare, a cosmic stuffed shirt”? Because what those words attribute to God are not properly to be affirmed cataphatically, and so they’re not the proper object of apophatic denial either.

    Enough rambling.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Tom, Orthodox theologians have certainly certainly reflected deeply on the faith in personalist categories; but the question in mind mind is, why project these categories upon the Godhead in the ways that are now being done by the social trinitarians, particularly if it means abandoning or rejecting the Nicene formulation of the Trinity? As you have pointed out, the social trinitarians are attempting to articulate the mystery of the Trinity in ways that the Fathers would have (apparently) rejected. I do not think you are going to persuade the Orthodox to follow along those lines, if it means creating discontinuity with the Fathers. What probably needs to be done is to better understand the trinitarian reflections of Zizioulas and Staniloae. Clearly they understand their work to be in accord with the Fathers. This now needs to be tested and evaluated.

      As far as I can tell, the social Trinitarians are doing their work precisely as Protestants, with lip-service to Nicaea and the dogmatic tradition. Perhaps this is an inaccurate or unfair comment, and I welcome correction. You can’t ask Orthodox or Catholic theologians to stop being Orthodox or Catholic.

      I hope to begin reading some of the trinitarian work of St Gregory Nyssen. I will be paying close attention to the question whether he can be enlisted in the social trinitarian project. Having just read Behr’s discussion of Gregory, I am skeptical.


  5. tgbelt says:

    Fr Aidan: Tom, Orthodox theologians have certainly reflected deeply on the faith in personalist categories; but the question in [my] mind is, why project these categories upon the Godhead in the ways that are now being done by the social trinitarians, particularly if it means abandoning or rejecting the Nicene formulation of the Trinity?

    Tom: Then I suppose what I’m wondering is what we think we’re saying about God when we reflect upon him in personalist categories. Underneath this is a much larger issue–the nature of theological language when God is discussed–not something there are short/easy answers to. It seems to me that if God is “infinitely” other than us then all categories (personalist and otherwise) are equally other/unlike God, which leaves me wondering why reflecting upon God in personalist terms gets us closer to the truth about God rather reflecting upon him, say, as a rock, or a plant or an amoeba (non-personal terms). Surely human being is “more like” God than a fish is like God. But how can one created thing be more like an “infinitely other God” than any other created thing? Both are equally infinitely different than God. But once you posit that kind of difference, how do we then argue that one created thing is more like God, closer to God, than another created thing? Just having one of my “moments.”


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I have not listened to either part of the interview (yet?). And I have not read enough of the Father’s (in translation: my languages are not up to the originals), or even nearly enough about them. But from what I have read. and heard in lectures, my impression is that you are quite right when you say, “The debate is often presented as a choice between social trinitarianism and modalism. But the patristic doctrine does not fit into either category.” Whatever the Fathers are saying, they are not saying there is a One in any sense prior to or independent of the Three, nor Any, nor All Three, of the Three independent of the One. There is no Unenhypostasized Ousia, and there is both the Monarchy of the Father and the distinct Filiation of the Son and Spiration of the Holy Spirit and the coeternal distinct and total Trienhypostisization of the One Ousia. Absolute Oneness and Absolute Distinction are coeternal.


Comments are closed.