Debating the Tuggy Triad

11-12-3.jpg~original.jpegAre you ready for a break from the universalist-infernalist debate? I know I am. So how about a discussion on the Trinity? Everyone please click on the link and hop over to philosopher Dale Tuggy’s article “Jesus, God, and an inconsistent triad.” As you probably already know, Dr Tuggy is a unitarian who also has a high regard for Jesus of Nazareth. In this article he hopes to persuade us that the classical trinitarian doctrine is logically absurd. He presents us with these three statements:

D: Jesus and God have differed.
N: Jesus and God are numerically one.
I: If any X and Y have ever differed, then they are not numerically one.

One cannot affirm all three statements, insists Tuggy, without contradiction.

First things first.  I do not know how to to affirm or disaffirm the first two statements without begging somebody’s question.  That is to say, in my judgment whether one agrees or disagrees with them depends on whether one whether one has first embraced either the unitarian or the trinitarian doctrine of God (or something in between).

Consider statement #1: “Jesus and God have differed.” The first thing I notice is the past tense. It assumes that God is a being in time; but I do not accept the premise that God is a being in time. He is the creator of time. None of our temporal categories apply to him. Therefore the statement is meaningless.

But I suppose Dale can come back and say: “Forget the past tense for the moment. If God is not a being in time, then that in itself is a clear way in which God and Jesus differ: according to your view, God is an immutable, impassible eternal being; but Jesus is a temporal being. He grows older in time. He moves around in time. He gets hungry in time. He dies in time. Your God doesn’t do any of that stuff.”

Point taken. But we classical trinitarians are also Chalcedonians, and we believe that Jesus Christ is one hypostasis subsisting in two natures. The Chalcedonian Definition authorizes us to attribute to Jesus both divine and human predicates. As a result, we can and do affirm that Jesus can simultaneously walk around Nazareth and eternally create the world from out of nothing.

“But Jesus talks to God!”

Yes he does. Isn’t it wonderful!

“You have to admit, however, that this dialogue with God distinguishes Jesus from God.”

Absolutely. This dialogue distinguishes Jesus the eternal Son from his eternal Father. That’s why the Church teaches that the Father and Jesus are distinct hypostases. As we say in the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “eternally begotten of the Father.” Or as St Athanasius writes: “The Son is everything the Father is, except ‘Father.'”

Now I realize that you find the  trinitarian-incarnational construal implausible, Dale; but why should I prescind from the dogmatic faith of the Church when interpreting your first two statements?  Or to phrase it differently, why should I adopt your hermeneutical rules for reading the Bible?

On to statement #2: “Jesus and God are numerically one.” If this means that Jesus and God are one hypostasis, then the statement is clearly false—but who believes otherwise? The developed trinitarian faith is clear: Jesus (the Son) and God (the Father) are two distinct hypostases. It also goes on to assert that Jesus and God are numerically one in one precise sense: they both equally possess the divine nature. So I can also affirm statement statement #2.

Statement #3: “If any X and Y have ever differed, then they are not numerically one.” Sure, I’ll grant you this. Sounds commonsensical enough.

So there you have it, Dale. A trinitarian Christian can easily affirm each of the above statements. The triad is not inconsistent.

“But that’s not what the inerrant Word of God says!”

It all depends on how you read it. Think of the dogmatic decisions of Nicaea and Chalcedon as grammatical rules for the proper reading of the Bible. Just because the rules are not explicitly stated in the Bible does not mean that they do not normatively govern the proper reading of the Bible. I learned to speak English years before I was ever introduced to a grammar book.

“But your rules are implausible.”

I’m afraid you’re in the minority, Dale. For the past 1600 years Christians have found that reading the Bible through the lens of the trinitarian model yields superior and more convincing readings than reading it through a unitarian or Arian model. You might consider this a purely subjective judgment, but discursive reason alone cannot decide which model or set of grammatical rules is true and which is not.  An act of paradigmatic imagination is needed (see Imagining God by Garrett Green).

But I ain’t no philosopher. I’m sure the above needs to cleaned up a good bit. But I think my key point holds. Unless one presupposes that the doctrine of the Trinity is false, the above three statements can certainly be affirmed as true.

(Go to “God and the Triviality of Numerical Oneness“)

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27 Responses to Debating the Tuggy Triad

  1. There is a simpler way to think about this: the OT never presented God as a closed monad in the first place (eg Ezekiel 1:26 or Daniel 7:13), so that the question of how Jesus can be included in what is closed cannot arise. The only question that can arise is the one that historically did arise, both for John the Baptist and for Caiaphas– is this the One? What arguments like the Tuggy Trilemma show is that Judaic monotheism was not the same as Hellenistic monotheism. We knew that. Next?


  2. Edward De Vita says:

    From St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “On Not Three Gods”:

    “While we confess the invariableness of the nature we do not deny the distinction of cause and caused, by which alone we perceive that one Person is distinguished from another, in our belief that it is one thing to be the cause and another to be from the cause; and in that which is from the cause, we recognize yet another distinction. It is one thing to be directly from the First Cause, and another to be through Him who is directly from the First, so that the distinction of being only-begotten abides undoubtedly in the Son, nor is it doubted that the Spirit is from the Father; for the middle position of the Son is protective of His distinction as only-begotten, but does not exclude the Spirit from His natural relation to the Father.”

    Very clear here. The Son is distinct from the Father, not by nature, but by the distinction of “cause and caused.” A poor yet somewhat instructive analogy here is that of human father and son. The relationship father/son comes into being upon the birth of the son. In God, this relationship is eternal. A human son shares the same nature as his father. So also, the eternal Son shares the same nature as the Father. So, it seems that Dale’s criticism does not touch the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity.
    One more thing. How does one account for a God who is love on the Unitarian hypothesis? Who does He love prior to creation? And if it is creation that is the object of His love, then is creation to be understood as an eternal and necessary emanation from Him?


  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Haven’t read Dr. Tuggy’s article, yet, but your discussion of his sense of statement D suggests that his “high regard for Jesus of Nazareth” is an emphatically anti-Incarnational one. Is that so? (I don’t know enough about Unitarians – and I should read more S.T. Coleridge.) Could a Unitarian be emanationist in anything like the sense Edward De Vita ponders?

    To be perhaps plodding but not intentionally impudent, your reference to “the dogmatic decisions of Nicaea” implies that at least all the modern non-Chalcedonian miaphysists I’ve read (about) would also fully affirm what your “we classical trinitarians” do, about distinctions of Father, Spirit, and Incarnate Son, though without believing “that Jesus Christ is one hypostasis subsisting in two natures”.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      My sense, David, is that Tuggy wants to affirm some kind of subordinationism, perhaps along the lines of St Justin Martyr, but I’m not sure. Nor do I know how he understands the doctrine of creation. He has posted a great deal on the Trinity at his blog. I’m sure one could track down the answers to our questions, if one had the energy to do so (which I do not have, at the moment).


  4. ronald murphy says:

    Too many Scriptures prove the Divinity of Christ! In my opinion, Unitarians are like the ancient Arians and Modalists–they refuse to believe God’s incomprehensible Revelation of Himself! Even in Hebrew, “Elohim” and “Echad” are plural names used to describe The Godhead’s “plurality in unity.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Richard Bauckham ain’t no philosopher neither–

    The term identity is mine, not that of the ancient literature, but I use it as a label for what I do find in the literature, which is not, of course, necessarily a notion precisely the same as modern ideas of personal identity, but is nevertheless clearly a concern with who God is. The value of the concept of divine identity appears partly if we contrast it with a concept of divine essence or nature. Identity concerns who God is; nature concerns what God is or what divinity is. Greek philosophy, already in the period we are discussing and in a way that was to influence the Christian theological tradition significantly in the period after the New Testament, typically defined divine nature by a series of metaphysical attributes: ingenerateness, incorruptibility, immutability and so on. My point is not that the biblical and Jewish tradition had no use at all for statements about divine nature. Some Jewish writers in the later Second Temple period consciously adopted some of the Greek metaphysical language. But even in these writers the dominant conceptual framework of their understanding of God is not a definition of divine nature — what divinity is — but a notion of divine identity, characterized primarily in ways other than metaphysical attributes. That God is eternal, for example — a claim essential to all Jewish thinking about God — is not so much a statement about what divine nature is, more an element in the unique divine identity, along with claims that God alone created all things and rules all things, that God is gracious and merciful and just, that God brought Israel out of Egypt and made Israel his own people and gave Israel his law at Sinai and so on. If we wish to know in what Second Temple Judaism considered the uniqueness of the one God to consist, what distinguished God as unique from all other reality, including beings worshipped as gods by Gentiles, we must look not for a definition of divine nature but for ways of characterizing the unique divine identity.

    –Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel, p. 7


  6. Whenever I am presented with Propositional Logic, Truth Tables, Isomorphisms and the like, in an attempt to explain something that was originally designed to be taken on faith and experienced organically in our daily lives, the cynical “Paraclete” on my shoulder spouts – “Rahhh, rahhh Polly want more confusion, Polly want more confusion, rahhh, rahhh……”

    These deconstructive attempts have at the heart of their agendum, a kind of cold “pragmatism” that desires to centrifuge out God’s nature and label it as such. Never content with the deep and profound mystery of Love itself, setting up paralogisms in an attempt to uncover the supposed inherent contradictions within the Trinity, strokes the ego the turgid exegete.

    Speaking of which, this recent topic has enticed me to bite off an essay by Sara L. Uckelman entitled – “Reasoning about the Trinity: A Modern Formalization of a Medieval System of Trinitarian Logic.” May God grant my small brain fortitude to absorb the general thesis of the work, and not choke on the details!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I see one critical difference between the way that contemporary analytic philosophers address the Trinity and the way that the early Church Fathers did: the former treat it as a conundrum to be solved rather than a mystery to be lived. Patristic reflection and debate were ultimately driven, I believe, by soteriological concerns. A really fine book on this topic is Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea.


  7. Pingback: dialogue on God, Jesus, and identity with Alvin Kimel - Trinities

  8. Dale Tuggy says:

    Thanks for the post, Alvin. I interact with your arguments here:

    Strangely enough, I think you ought to agree with me about the triad! But it may depend on what you think a “nature” to be.

    It’s remarkable how distracted your commenters are by the use of precise argument, and by the fact that I’m a unitarian. I suggest that instead they should pick which claim to deny, and they can perfectly well see, perhaps with a little guidance, that at least one of the three claims must be false.

    Logic is our friend! Don’t confuse it with philosophical speculations – a much more dangerous animal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No Man's Land says:

      Hi Dale, otherwise jumping right in.

      D*) What is your definition of identity in D*? Is it the rather strong version that two things are identical iff any property of one is a property of the other? That is a problematic version I think. It means, among other things, that you are not identical with yourself five minutes ago, because you do not have all the same properties now which you had then. It means you are a different person all the time. Pretty strange.

      Hence it seems reasonable to use a broader version of identity, something like: For any “a” and any “b”, “a” is identical with “b” iff, for every property, that property is a property of “a” at a given time iff it is a property of “b” at that time. So we can avoid the problem above with this formulation–something can change but still be identical with itself.

      This formulation says that if two things differ (have different properties) at the same time, then they are not identical, but if they differ (have different properties) at different times this does not mean, necessarily, that they are not identical. For me, this is a reasonable formulation and it has the advantage of avoiding the ship of theseus problem.

      The relevance of this formulation of identity for us is that it means that Jesus could differ (have different properties) from God at a different time, but still be identical with God, given that God is outside time.

      Also God and Jesus could be essentially identical, that is, they are identical iff every essential property of Jesus is an essential property of God. So the mere fact that Jesus did this and God didn’t or what have you is irrelevant. Of course, we would have to cash out essential property, but I see no reason that could not be done within some formal framework, although I don’t have the time for that now.

      N*) What do you mean by numerically one? One object? God is not an object, so…I don’t think you mean that. I don’t see how Being itself could be just another being.

      Maybe you mean one number like the number 1? Well, numbers are abstract and the number one is really, by von Neumann ontology, which is the universe of modern set theory, a set containing the empty set. So the number one is really 2 sets–a set containing the empty set. Indeed even using the set-theoretic common-usage Zermelo-Fraenkel symbols, like {1}, {s}, etc, every nonempty set has at least two subsets, the empty set and the set itself.

      The point is that we don’t restrict number theory in the way you want to restrict God and Jesus. Why couldn’t God be the set and Jesus the empty set? There is your numerically one, according to the foundation of mathematics.

      Of course, I don’t need all this to arrive at the concept of the Trinity. As Barth thought, revelation and the Trinity are tightly interwoven and self-supporting. You couldn’t get one without the other. Indeed to believe in a Christian God is to believe categorically in the Triune God. It is just Scripture and Christian tradition.


      • Excellent points! The “economic” Trinity is the “immanent” Trinity and the “immanent” Trinity is the “economic” Trinity – Grundaxiom. One potentially avoids subordination conflation by applying your –

        “The relevance of this formulation of identity for us is that it means that Jesus could differ (have different properties) from God at a different time, but still be identical with God, given that God is outside time.”


        Liked by 1 person

  9. Ronald Murphy says:

    “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9) God’s Logic is infinitely greater and higher than mortal man’s logic. There are many Scriptures revealing that “God’s eternal ways, attributes, and nature are past finding out”. The Triune Godhead must be accepted by God’s revelation of Himself–not by philosophy or human logic. There are many things about our Creator/Redeemer that mortals can’t completely understand, but we know that He is a God of Eternal, Agape Love–not a God of eternal wrath, retribution, and mercilessness to the lost and fallen.


    • Ronald Murphy says:

      Also, Jesus, the Word Incarnate, NEVER DIFFERED in the attributes of God, as the Scriptures reveal. (He even knew people’s thoughts) Jesus was The Word of God clothed in flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, always did the Father’s Will, performed miracles that no mortal man could, and was raised from the dead incorruptible. Christ stated Himself that He and the Father, with the Holy Spirit were One in Unity.


  10. SF says:

    // On to statement #2: “Jesus and God are numerically one.” If this means that Jesus and God are one hypostasis //

    Why go for the most straw-man-like interpretation of this?


    • Ronald MURPHY says:

      The Father and Son, I agree are two different hypostasis, but are One in perfect Triunity with the Holy Spirit as the Godhead. Again, the Hebrew word, “Echad” is clearly defined as two or more units/hypostasis within one compound essence, such as as husband and wife become one in unity after marriage, or the proton-electron-neutrons work within one compound atom (except that the Godhead can’t be split like the atom). These are just analogies to describe more than one unit/hypostasis within one entity or essense. The Hebrew word, Echad” *clearly* means this. There are many other entities that are composed with more than one unit working together within one compound/entity. Jesus fleshly body differed from His heavenly Father, but his inner soul didn’t. But even His flesh was and is supernatural in that He performed miracles that no prophet could–especially the raising of His Body up in three days incorruptible and infinitely!


  11. tgbelt says:

    I not sure how to take ‘D’. First, because the term ‘God’ is ill-defined (Does Dale mean the Unitarian or the Trinitarian ‘God’? It might make a difference to a trinitarian what sort of ‘God’ the Triad has in mind). Secondly because ‘difference’ can relative (different “with respect to ___”?). For the sake of exploring the Triad, let’s take ‘God’ to refer to the Father, as Orthodox take the Father to be the fount/source of deity, the principle of unity, and ‘Jesus’ to be the human being conceived in Trinitarian terms as the Son/Logos incarnate (which of course will bring up the question of incarnation and complicate things). (We addressed Dale on some of these issues here:

    From where I sit, ‘D’ says: The Incarnate Son/Logos and the Father have differed, and I’ll agree with that; the ‘Son’ and the ‘Father’ differ with respect to hypostasis/person. Seems to me that the sense in which the Son and the Father differ are those senses in which God is already constituted by certain hypostatic differentiations. In other words, God even differs from God “with respect to hypostases.” So if ‘D’ were more specific and spelled out, maybe I’d disagree. But as I understand it, I agree.

    I take ‘N’ to mean numerical equivalence. Of course, we’re going to run into problems reducing the reality we name ‘God’ to the cognitive grasp of our categories and language, but with that said, I’d disagree that Father and Son are numerically one. But even here one can qualify things (One “with respect to ____”? Or three “with respect to ____”?). As I understand the tradition, Father and Son are one with respect to essence/nature (per the Creed), but they’re plural/diverse with respect to hypostasis.

    The last of the train, ‘I’, just follows (for me). Yes, Father and Son differ ‘with respect to hypostasis’ and therefore are not numerically one (in that respect).

    I don’t know if it’ll help Dale, but Marilyn McCord Adam (Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology, Ch. 5) has some interesting metaphysical reflections on the coherence of trinitarian claims (


  12. Charles Twombly says:

    Am aching to have folks like you and Dale discuss issues like this in the light of John Damascene’s use of perichoresis in relation to his Trinitarianism and Incarnationalism. My recent work attempts to show the astounding helpfulness of JD’s views. Andrew Louth, Lewis Ayres and the other endorsers offer high praise. Eager to find out how others “read” the text.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Given Dale’s unitarian commitments, it’s hard to see how he might find St John’s perichoreticism (is that a word?) helpful at this point. But perhaps, Charles, you might like to share with us how its relevancy to the discussion, given that you are the author of a book on the subject (applause, applause): Perichoresis and Personhood.


      • tgbelt says:

        I’d love it if Charles would summarize the main points.


        • Charles Twombly says:

          Thanks for the plug, Aidan. Will try to find the time for a reply. Actually, the connection with Dale’s triad palpable, once you get into my presentation. (You’ll see! Happy Fourth.)

          Liked by 1 person

  13. Charles Twombly says:

    Tgbelt and others: Both Amazon and the Wipf and Stock website have good-sized chunks of my preface and/or introductory chapter. I think you guys will find that an adequate summary of the book and my interpretation of JD in relation to the Trinity, Christ, and soteriology. Give it a try! Thanks for interest.


    • tgbelt says:

      Thank you Charles. Looks good. On my to-buy list. And my wife says that if I lose 5 lbs by Monday (I’m half way there), then I get an increase in my monthly book allowance! So I’m juicing for your book.


      • Charles Twombly says:

        Thanks, tgbelt! Don’t want to have my wife see your “lose and buy” arrangement. It could mess up my book-buying habits!


        • tgbelt says:

          Sorry I haven’t been adding my name: Tom. And I lost a full 5.25 lbs in 4 days, so I get your book!


  14. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Brethren, I appear to have misunderstood the intent of Dr Tuggy’s triad. It does not exclude a catholic understanding of the Trinity. See my sequel: “God and the Triviality of Numerical Oneness.”


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