Are Christians Polytheists?

If Father, Son, and Spirit are each divine, then why are they not three gods? We are finally prepared to look more closely at St Gregory of Nyssa’s provocative answer in his Ad Ablabium. As we have seen, Gregory has directed our attention away from speculation about the transcendent ousia to contemplation of the economic energeiai as displayed in Holy Scripture. He even redefines the word theotes (divinity) to denote the Deity’s providential lordship over creation. This is a curious move on Gregory’s part. He seems to have stolen from us a useful word. Won’t we just have to invent a replacement? But there’s method in the Nyssian madness. He wants us to see something in the Bible that we perhaps have missed and which his opponents certainly have missed: (1) all activities properly characterized as divine (creating, overseeing, redeeming, vivifying, sanctifying, for example) are attributed to each of the hypostases, and (2) these activities possess a trinitarian structure.

Gregory is well aware that simply reinterpreting theotes does not resolve the accusation of polytheism. His opponents can easily respond that if theotes signifies an operation and not the divine substance, then logic demands that “we must rather speak of three gods who are beheld in the same operation, just as they do who speak of ‘three philosophers’ or ‘three orators,’ or any other name derived from a profession, when there are many who share it” (p. 261). (Remember: Gregory, following Basil, frequently employed the analogy of “three men” by which to explain the plurality and commonality of the Godhead. His opponents are simply attempting to hoist him on his own petard.) Gregory imagines them as arguing that “in the case of men, even if many share the same operation, each one separately and by himself undertakes the matter at hand. By his individual action each contributes nothing to the others engaged in the same task. For if there are many orators, their pursuit, being identical, bears the same name despite the plurality. Yet each one who follows this pursuit goes about it on his own” (p. 261). Consider an orchestral concert. Each violinist, cellist, oboist, trumpeter, flutist contributes to the making of the symphony; yet each does so in their own way. The musical contribution of the cellist is different from the contribution of the flutist, the oboist from the violinist, even though their individual performances combine to produce one symphonic performance. Each person who participates in a cooperative endeavor is properly “distinguished from the others by his special environment and his particular way of handling the task” (p. 261). So if we can speak of multiple human beings and their differentiated actions, why are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not properly described as multiple deities?

Nyssan now makes his key move: not only should we not imagine the divine persons as ever acting independently of each other, but we should not envision divine agency as a symphonic combination of three distinct activities. Every action of the Deity originates with the Father, proceeds through the Son, and reaches its completion by the Holy Spirit. “It is for this reason,” Gregory explains, “that the word for the operation is not divided among the persons involved. For the action of each in any matter is not separate and individualized” (p. 262).

When we contemplate the ad extra workings of the Trinity, we do not discern any gap, whether temporal or metaphysical, that would allow us to separate the hypostases and thus divide them from one another. The Father creates, the Son creates, the Spirit creates; the Father saves, the Son saves, the Spirit saves; the Father deifies, the Son deifies, the Spirit deifies; and so on for ever action of the Godhead. Lewis Ayres comments:

The point is a fairly subtle one: whatever sort of individuality and difference exists between the three divine persons it is not the sort of individuality we observe in an existent that has its own self-caused and distinct activity. The divine persons, thus, do not simply act together, they function inseparably to constitute any and every divine activity towards the creation. … Gregory, of course, does not want to deny that the divine persons possess their own distinct and irreducible hypostatic existence. However, his account of divine action uses a philosophical model of causality to present the three not as possessing distinct actions towards a common goal, but as together constituting just one distinct action (because they are one power). …

Through observing God’s activity—which should be seen in creation and is narrated in Scripture—we can see that God’s one power works always by a unitary causal sequenced activity of the three persons. The divine action does not reveal to us individuated natures parallel to those revealed by human activity. The divine action or will is the will of the Father that proceeds through the Son to the Spirit, and yet without that will being only the action of the Father, nor being the action of three together. It is, thus simply inappropriate to speak of three Gods, because we do not observe three distinct actions in the divine activity. (“On Not Three People,” Modern Theology 18 (October 2002): 461-462)

Unlike the various musicians who individually contribute to the playing of a symphony and whose performances can be distinctly identified and distinguished from those of the others (we can see and hear that what the specific violinist does is different from what the specific percussionist does, etc.), the joint activity of the Holy Trinity constitutes one energeia—one indivisible act of creating, one indivisible act of redeeming, one indivisible act of sanctifying, one indivisible act of deifying. We do not speak of three Creators but one Creator; we do not speak of three life-givers but one life-giver. The Holy Trinity, Nyssan states, accomplishes every operation in the selfsame way: “from the Father, through the Son, to the Spirit.” Hence “we cannot enumerate as three gods those who jointly, inseparably, and mutually exercise their divine power and activity of overseeing us and the whole creation” (p. 262). Gregory expands upon the trinitarian structure with special reference to God’s sovereign providence:

As we have already said, the principle of the overseeing and beholding (theatikes) power is a unity in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It issues from the Father, as from a spring. It is actualized by the Son; and its grace is perfected by the power of the Holy Spirit. No activity is distinguished among the Persons, as if it were brought to completion individually by each of them or separately apart from their joint supervision.. Rather is all providence, care and direction of everything, whether in the sensible creation or of heavenly nature, one and not three. The preservation of what exists, the rectifying of what is amiss, the instruction of what is set right, is directed by the holy Trinity. But it is not divided into three parts according to the number of the Persons acknowledged by the faith, so that each operation, viewed by itself, should be the work of the Father alone, or of the Only-begotten by himself, or of the Holy Spirit separately. But while, as the apostle says, the one and the same Spirit distributes his benefits to each one severally, this beneficent movement of the Spirit is not without beginning. Rather do we find that the power we conceive as preceding it, namely, the only-begotten God, effects everything. Apart from him nothing comes into being; and again, this source of goodness issues from the Father’s will. (p. 263)

I cannot resist at this point comparing the trinitarianism of St Gregory with the social trinitarianism of the analytic philosopher Richard Swinburne. In his book The Christian God Swinburne presents an understanding of God as a collective of three omnipotent divine individuals. Immediately the problem arises: how does the collective ensure cooperation between the Three? Is it possible for one or two of the divine persons to frustrate the will of the third? Could one person decide to create a new universe without the consent and involvement of the other two? How do they resolve disagreements? Do they vote? Swinburne considers various mechanisms that might be employed by the Triad to ensure unity of action. He favors the following:

Such unity of action could be secured if the first individual solemnly vows to the second individual in causing his existence that he will not initiate any act (of will) in a certain sphere of activity that he allocates to him, while at the same time the first individual requests the second individual not to initiate any such act outside that sphere. The vow of the first would create an obligation on him not to initiate any act (of will) within the second individual’s allocated sphere of activity. So, although the first divine individual retains his omnipotence, it is, as before, limited by his inability to do other than what is perfectly good, and in virtue of his promise this limitation will ensure that he does not frustrate the actions of the second divine individual. The overall goodness of conformity to that request (not to conform would be not to conform to a reasonable request from the source of his being and power) will ensure that, although omnipotent, the second individual cannot frustrate any action of the first individual. The sharing of divinity could (logically) only occur subject to some restriction preventing mutual impediment of action. (pp. 174-175)

Swinburne acknowledges that the above is only a piece of very fallible speculation … yet still, really? Trinitarian unity secured through contract? No Church Father comes close to this kind of anthropomorphic polytheism. It would not have occurred to any of them to think about God this way. St Gregory of Nyssa is sometimes identified as a social trinitarian, yet he would have been (and no doubt is) horrified by this presentation of the Godhead. I can imagine him reading Swinburne’s chapter on the Trinity and saying to himself, “Didn’t I make it clear in Ad Ablabium not to take the analogy of three men too seriously!” Trinitarian action is not a matter of cooperation. Edward Feser rightly judges that Swinburne’s account “surely amounts to Tritheism, the heretical claim that there are three gods, not to Trinitarianism.”

How do we know that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God and not three gods? Because the unity of their divine activity witnesses to the oneness of the divine power and thus to the oneness of the divine substance. Scripture teaches us that not only does each divine person do divine things, but the Three do these divine things in indivisible unity. Ayres summarizes:

Thus, says Gregory, if the activities are the same, then the power which gave rise to them is the same and the ineffable divine nature in which that power is inherent must also be one. There is, then, no basis on which to speak of a divided divine nature, because the divine operation that has given rise to our conception of Godhead itself is not divided. If the operation is one, then the power that gave rise to that operation must be one. The divine nature remains unknown but its power is revealed to be one. (p. 459)

Hence we do not need to comprehend the divine essence in order to know that the Holy Trinity is one God. The conjoint activities of the Father, Son, and Spirit evidence their ineffable unity in the divinity. Again to quote Gregory:

The Saviour of all men, especially of believers, is spoken of by the apostle as one. Yet no one argues from this expression that the Son does not save believers, or that those who are in salvation receive it apart from the Spirit. But God who is over all is the Saviour of all, while the Son brings salvation to effect by the grace of the Spirit. Yet on this account Scripture does not call them three Saviours, although salvation is recognized to come from the holy Trinity. In the same way they are not three gods, according to the meaning we have given to the term “Godhead,” although this expression attaches to the holy Trinity. (p. 264)

Identity of operation implies identity of substance.

I have already indicated what I think St Gregory of Nyssa would think about the social trinitarianism of Richard Swinburne. I wonder what Dr Swinburne would think of Gregory’s argument against tritheism.

(Return to first article)

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5 Responses to Are Christians Polytheists?

  1. Agni Ashwin says:

    What would be the Hebrew translation of “hypostasis”?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Interesting question. I do not know how a Hebrew scholar might render hypostasis into Hebrew. The term, as you know, comes from the Greek philosophical tradition. I doubt Hebrew has equivalent terminology, but I may be wrong. And to make things even more difficult, Eastern Christians took the term and made it their own for theological, not philosophical purposes. Latin Christians did not initially understand what Eastern Christians mean when they identified the three divine persons as hypostases.


  2. David Waltz says:

    Hi Fr Kimel,

    Good post. But, I do have some concerns with the following:

    >>Every action of the Deity originates with the Father, proceeds through the Son, and reaches its completion by the Holy Spirit. “It is for this reason,” Gregory explains, “that the word for the operation is not divided among the persons involved. For the action of each in any matter is not separate and individualized”>>

    The incarnation of the Son seems to me to be “separate and individualized”. Any thoughts on this ???

    Grace and peace,



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      David, the Incarnation, I suggest, supremely manifests the Gregorian rule: all three divine Persons are involved in it. The Father wills the Incarnation and sends the Son, the Son “submits” to the Father and empties himself into creaturely embodiment, the Spirit enacts the Incarnation in the womb of the Theotokos.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      St Augustine: ‘[T]he will of the Father and the Son is one, and their working indivisible. In like manner, then, let him understand the incarnation and nativity of the Virgin, wherein the Son is understood as sent, to have been wrought by one and the same operation of the Father and of the Son indivisibly; the Holy Spirit certainly not being thence excluded, of whom it is expressly said, “She was found with child by the Holy Ghost.”‘


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