What if God were to post a selfie: one “self” or three “selves”?

The question may initially strike one as a tad odd—and not just because God doesn’t post on Facebook. The word “self” is not typically used to speak of the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Orthodox Christians have traditionally used the word “person” to distinguish the Three from the one divine being or nature. As the 382 Synod of Constantinople wrote to the Western bishops:

This [faith] should satisfy you and us, and all who do not pervert the word of truth—for it is the most ancient, it accords with the [creed of our] Baptism, and teaches us to believe in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—believing, that is to say, in one Godhead and power and substance of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, of equal dignity and coeternal majesty, in three perfect subsistences [hypostases], that is, three perfect persons [prosopa].

And the Quicunque vult: “And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.”

Even though “person” in classical trinitarian usage does not mean what we popularly mean by the word, the popular meaning inevitably bleeds into the trinitarian usage, despite the protest of the occasional theologian. In the past century the two great Karls, Barth and Rahner, expressed concern that the phrase “three persons” might lead folks to the mistaken belief that God is a collective of three individual subjectivities. Thus Rahner:

It is so normal to speak of three persons in God, in our preaching and theology, that one has the feeling that there is absolutely no other way of expressing this mystery. But that this is incorrect follows at once from the fact that the New Testament does not use the term “person”, and that it was only introduced gradually into ecclesiastical usage, while the Greeks rarely say πρόσωπον (persona) and mostly prefer ὑπόστᾰσις (hypostasis). In the contexts in question, all these statements mean the same thing, but not by virtue of their origin and history. And they have not exactly the same meaning, and did not retain such completely identical meaning in the further course of historical development. For while hypostasis, subsistence, as a concrete and as an abstract notion, can be predicated of any concrete being, and not merely of rational beings, persona always means the rational subsistent. And in the course of the history of the term, the situation of the consciousness of the spiritual subject as well as that of the ultimate concrete difference between one being and another has been modified. Spiritual subjectivity in consciousness and freedom is now not merely an essential note of the concrete subsistent if this is to be a person. In the modern notion of person, consciousness is intrinsically constitutive for the very existence of the person [my emphasis].

If this shift of meaning were applied to the doctrine of the Trinity, three divine persons would mean three consciousnesses, with three free wills. But this is wrong. Hence the classical formulation of the doctrine cannot and may not be adapted to this modern trend of thought. … Hence the official terminology of the Church, which was regulated according to a contingent use of the word “person”, is now constantly exposed to misunderstanding. (Encyclopedia of Theology, pp. 1762-1763)

Because of the potential for misunderstanding, Rahner proposes that ecclesiastical invocation of “three divine persons” should be interpreted as “three different ways of subsistence.” Similarly Barth proposes that “three persons” be construed as “three modes of being.” But most contemporary theologians have been unwilling to abandon the word “person” (see, e.g., Lawrence Porter’s essay “On Keeping ‘Persons’ in the Trinity“). After all, how does one pray to a “mode of being”? And so trinitarian Christians seem to be stuck with “person.”

When we turn to the article on the Trinity in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, written by Dale Tuggy, we find that the doctrine analyzed precisely under the modern notion of person, though Tuggy prefers to use the term “self.” “A self,” according to Tuggy, “is being which is in principle capable of knowledge, intentional action, and interpersonal relationships.” So is the Trinity one self or three selves? Philosophers divide on this question, with some advocating a one-self model and others a social trinitarian three-self model.

But what if Barth and Rahner are right, and the notion of self, as defined by Tuggy, is inappropriate to proper trinitarian exposition? Can the term itself be salvaged?

(Go to “Father, Son, Spirit as Divine Selves”)

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3 Responses to What if God were to post a selfie: one “self” or three “selves”?

  1. I think his selfie would like this:

    Kryst the Konkeror of Hel!


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    When is to speak in terms of “modes” not to speak ‘modalistically’? Not having tried to follow up the ‘two modes of Karlitas’ in context, I do not know if they go on sounding as Sabellian as this does on first hearing, but it is no obvious improvement in terms of popular impressions. And what does Rahner mean, ” the New Testament does not use the term ‘person’, and that it was only introduced gradually into ecclesiastical usage, while the Greeks rarely say πρόσωπον (persona)”, when I find St. Paul saying, “tote de prosopon pros prosopon” in 1 Corinthians 13:12? And isn’t “prosopon” a Septuagintism? (Is there a Septuagint concordance or a searchable Septuagint online? The 1930 Neste “Editio decima” I happen to have to hand has “2 K 5,7” in the margin, here, but I am not going to excavate my copy of Rahlfs before hitting “Post Comment”… )

    What is the ‘relationship’ (if that is a possible term) between the One Ousia and Each of the Three most distinct Persons Who Each Enhypostasize that One fully and perfectly – and eternally Personally relationally, Fathering and being Filiated, Fathering and being Spirated, by the complete imparting of the One Ousia Which is equally completely retained?

    When does ‘person’ as designating a ‘human person’ become common, and how does, or does not, the use of ‘human nature/ousia’ differ from that of God’s? That is, each human person is not thought of as completely enhypostasizing human being/nature.


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Again, the One Ousia is no kind of ‘self’ prior to, or distinct from, the Persons. ‘It’ does not love ‘Itself’ distinctly from the Persons. Each Person completely Enhypostasizing the One Ousia loves Each Other Person Who equally completely Enhypostasizes the One Ousia. (I think of Charles Williams answering the Plotinian ‘Alone to the Alone’ with a playful Christian, “It is not good for God to be alone.”)


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