“Three selves, one being”—does it work as a trinitarian formula? Well, why not? It all depends on what we mean by the word “self.” Dale Tuggy defines self as a center of individual consciousness, volition, and agency—i.e., someone who is “in principle capable of knowledge, intentional action, and interpersonal relationships.” On his blog Tuggy expounds a bit more on his understanding of self:
I hold that we all have a vague concept of a self. It is a thing (substance) which is (normally) conscious, which can perform intentional actions (do things for reasons), has knowledge, and can be one party in I-thou relationships (friendships of some variety). So, all normal humans are selves. Dogs and monkeys are maybe borderline cases. Angels and demons would be selves. And, gods, devas, etc. (in the context of polytheism) would be selves, as would be God in monotheism.
If this is what “self” means, and if the doctrine of the Trinity asserts three selves, then it’s hard to see how the doctrine of the Trinity does not entail three gods, as Tuggy pointedly observes in his critique of William Hasker’s social trinitarianism. But what if we do not accept this modern definition of self and instead adapt the word to classical trinitarian doctrine? What would the result be?
Consider the early 20th century Episcopal theologian Francis J. Hall. When I was at Nashotah House in the late 70s, the American Church Union gave copies of his multi-volume Dogmatic Theology (the Anglican Summa, as it’s sometimes called) to all the seminarians. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf ever since. I regularly consulted the Dogmatic Theology when preparing catechism classes. One of my favorite volumes in the series is the one devoted to the Trinity. I recommend it as a solid introduction to the catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Hall is conversant with the theological tradition, but he doesn’t get bogged down in the technicalities of scholastic presentations. He writes clearly and confidently. Like many Anglican theologians of his day, he also had a lively interest in the question of divine personality.
Hall recognizes the problem with employing the term “person” to signify the three hypostases of the Trinity. In popular usage “person” implies “complete and separate individuality.” If the word “person” does in fact enjoy this meaning in the doctrine of the Trinity, then, says Hall, “the doctrine is self-contradictory. Three complete and separate individuals cannot be described as one indivisible being” (IV:165-166). But this is not what the catholic Church teaches when it speaks of three divine persons in one divine essence:
The theological proposition that three divine Persons co-exist in the one indivisible God neither means nor implies that three separate individuals are one being. It means only that three divine Selfs exist in, and possess, the indivisible Godhead, without either separation or confusion. Such doctrine is not self-contradictory, for it does not, as is objected, declare three persons to be one person, or three beings to be one being. (IV:166)
Unlike modern social trinitarians, Hall rejects the proposal that the Trinity is a collective of three independent individuals. The divine persons, rather, perfectly co-exist in each other by virtue of their equal possession of the one divine nature. This is the doctrine of coinherence. Hence the term “person” may be considered as functionally equivalent to “subject,” “self,” or even “ego” but without any suggestion of separation:
To assert the existence of three Persons in God means merely to say that there are three Egos in Him, the distinction being such as to warrant the use of distinguishing names and of plural personal pronouns and being involved in the very essence of God, so as to have eternal validity. But it does not mean that these three Egos are separate beings, or that they are to be regarded as mutually independent individuals. (IV:105)
Whether the term person is suitable for describing the three “somewhats” that Scripture teaches to exist in the Godhead is a question which does not require an answer in this connection. The fact is that theology has appropriated it for such use, and has employed it for many ages in a determinate and distinctively theological sense. This sense is to be ascertained neither by psychological analysis of human personality, nor by appeal either to etymology or to philosophy. It is to be discovered by studying the history of the word in catholic theology. Like many other terms, personality has various meanings; and confusion of thought must result from criticising a proposition in which it is used with one meaning as if it were employed in another. … It is sufficient to say that the term is suggested by the reciprocal use of pronouns in Holy Scripture as between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and positively means, when applied to Them, that They are distinct selfs, αὐτοί, or egos. Negatively, and by reason of the teaching of both Church and Scripture as to divine unity, it does not signify separate individuals, but selfs of one and the same individual and divine Being. (IV:164-165)
How does Hall not fall into the tritheism of three gods? By not importing into trinitarian discourse a modern definition of selfhood. A clear distinction between “person” and “nature” must be maintained, in accordance with the trinitarian and christological tradition. Those elements that we commonly associate with personhood (namely, consciousness and will) do not belong to the divine person but to nature.
The sixth Ecumenical Council, held at Constantinople in 680 A.D., accentuated the difference between person and nature, and settled it once for all, so far as the catholic terminology of the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are concerned, that the term person signifies the indivisible self of a rational nature, as distinguished from the natural attributes and functions which this self possesses, and by means of which it is manifested.
Even the will is to be referred to nature rather than to person; for like all the natural properties, it is possessed by the personal self rather than constitutes that self. The sixth Council decided that the one Person Christ possesses “two natural wills and two natural operations.” It is obvious that, if will is personality, there can be but one will in one person; but if will is a possession of person, and distinguishable from it, no contradiction is involved in declaring that the one Person of the Word-incarnate possesses two wills. The line of demarcation in catholic terminology between person and nature was thus made to include will in nature, and to limit the meaning of person to the self or ego of the nature thus defined. (IV:98-99)
Each divine self, in other words, is a subject and possessor of the divine nature in all fullness. To each we may attribute all the properties of divinity, including consciousness and volition. This is why we may speak of three selves, without implying three gods. The Father, Son, and Spirit “receive proper names, are distinguished by a reciprocal use of pronouns, and are all acknowledged to be proper Subjects of divine predications, although such predications pertain to but one indivisible Being” (IV:178). Failure to properly distinguish between person and nature mortally wounds many contemporary presentations of the Holy Trinity, whether they fall into the one-self or three-self model. Modern definitions of personhood cannot be transferred into Godhead without compromising the catholic affirmation of Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.
When pushed by critics to explain further what a divine self or ego is, Hall points out that even the human ego eludes explanation: “Psychology postulates the existence of ego or self, but cannot get back of psychical processes to make this self a distinct and immediate object of scrutiny and description” (IV:194). We posit the existence of the self to account for our subjective experiences; but what precisely is this “I” that experiences them, that thinks and feels, that makes decisions, that acts in the world? The ego forever evades our attempts to define it. “It remains and must remain an inscrutable entity,” writes Hall (IV:195). If self is ineffable at the created level, then we should not be surprised by its ineffability at the divine level.
Analytic philosophers will no doubt find unsatisfactory Hall’s modest construal of divine selfhood as metaphysical subject of divine properties and operations (though those who have been influenced by Wittgenstein and his grammatical approach to philosophy may well nod their heads with approval); but Hall insists that the catholic doctrine of the Trinity does not permit us to say anything more. The theological meaning of “person” is dogmatically defined by the Church’s rejection of “the Sabellian definition of divine Persons as mere aspects, dramatis personae,” and by her rejection of “the opposite and tritheistic definition of Them as separate beings or individuals. The divine Persons, in brief, are real, eternal, and distinct Selfs, but do not constitute separate Divine Beings” (IV:183-184). The Church was more concerned with describing what divine selfhood is not rather than what it is (IV:184, n. 1).
We may not be able to explain how there can be three selves where there are not three independent beings; but why do we think that we may impose our experience of finite human personality upon the infinite and transcendent Creator? “Apart from supernatural revelation,” Hall rightly states, “the possibilities of divine personality lie beyond our capacity to determine” (IV:193). Measuring and defining divine personality by what we observe in the created realm must be judged misguided and unsound, if not silly. “Because we never find more than one real self in one human being, it does not follow that only one self can exist in the one divine Being” (IV:166-167).
Hall’s acknowledgement of the limits of theological understanding should not be considered as an unfortunate retreat into mysterianism (though the triune God is indeed unfathomable mystery) but as necessary acknowledgement that faithful theological reflection is determined by God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ as given in the Scriptures and ecclesial experience. When the Church began to dogmatically define the trinitarian grammar, she was not interested in resolving philosophical conundrums but in protecting the apostolic revelation. “The Church’s purpose in defining,” Hall concludes, “was to preserve inviolate the mysteries which she had received from God, but which she did not pretend to explain” (IV:52).