Sunday 21 February 2021

Book review: Dale Tuggy’s ‘Trinity,’ independently published 2013


Dale Tuggy’s book began life as an encyclopaedia article on the Stanford website. It is rather like the curate’s egg - good in parts. As for what it sets out to do, Tuggy writes: ‘This article surveys these recent “rational reconstructions” of the Trinity doctrine, which centrally employs [sic] concepts from contemporary analytic metaphysics, logic, and epistemology‘ (pg 1). This is an interesting endeavour, given that recent “rational reconstructions” are a rather niche area, and a good summary is to be welcomed.

Nonetheless, its survey falls a bit short of that aim for reasons I’ll explain. The key part of such a book is its review of what other scholars have written on the subject, and we find mixed results. There are two main flaws. One flaw is erroneous readings of other scholars’ work. I will give three examples of this.

First example: Tuggy’s paraphrase of James Anderson. (This example refers to James Anderson, Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of its Presence, Character and Epistemic Status, Paternoster, 2007.) Tuggy writes: “Orthodox belief about the Trinity, Anderson holds, involves one in believing for example, that Jesus is identical to God, the Father is identical to God, and that Jesus and the Father are not identical” (Tuggy pg 47). Tuggy’s citation is pages 11-59 of Anderson’s book. On checking, I can’t see Anderson say that. Perhaps Tuggy has in mind what Anderson writes on pg 30, but if so it is an erroneous paraphrase of this: “the Father is identical with, not distinct from, the one divine ousia (essence, substance, Godhead); likewise for the Son and Spirit.” It is frustrating when checking a source reveals something different from what is claimed. Saying “identical” to “God” (as a count noun) is, I’m sure, not what Anderson meant by saying “identical with… the one divine ousia.” This is a serious difference.

Second example: Tuggy claims that “Augustine’s mediaeval successors all reject three-self approaches to the Trinity.” (One- and three-self theories are central to the book, as I’ll explain.) Tuggy’s citation for this is Richard Cross’s article in Rethinking Trinitarian Theology: Disputed Questions and Contemporary Issues in Trinitarian Theology, T&T Clark, 2012.) Tuggy cites pages 26-27 of it. However, turning to it we find that it doesn’t refer to “three-self” anything. Rather, Cross’s book does say this: “Medieval views of the Trinity are all clearly in the so-called ‘Latin’ camp” (Cross, pg 27). Tuggy imposes his ‘one/three-self’ framework, categorising the ‘Latin camp’ as 'one-self', as if these were equivalent – and he does not make it clear that this is his take on Cross, not really what Cross is saying.  

Third example: Tuggy seems to attribute to Richard Cross (Duns Scotus, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 69) this thought - Tuggy writes: “The persons, as it were, partially but don’t entirely “overlap”, as each is also partly composed of a unique personal property…” So, Tuggy. But this is not what Cross is saying. Indeed my suspicions were alerted by Tuggy’s peculiar talk of a person “partly composed of a… property.” What Cross actually writes is this: “What Scotus means is that the Father is not a part of the Son; not being the Father is a necessary property of the Son. (It is not a necessary property of the divine essence; hence the Father is formally distinct from the divine essence, but really distinct [in the relevant sense] from the Son.)” (Cross, pg 69). Contrary to Tuggy, Cross is not saying a divine person being “partly composed of a… property” - again, a serious difference. (Curiously, such is the sort of thing some Unitarians say pejoratively when talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, and Tuggy is a Unitarian.)

To be clear, the only citations that I cross-checked were those three, and all three are erroneous readings of those scholars. Why? It's troubling.

I said two main flaws, and the other is to do with how Tuggy uses a one/three-self idea. The thing is, that part of his book/encyclopaedia article is meant to be a literature review of writers’ ideas. But the writers he covers have largely not considered the sort of one/three-self framework Tuggy writes about. But his literature review gives the impression of centuries’ old ‘one/three-self’ debate and of such authors participating in it. To show why this is problematic, a bit more detail.

Tuggy centre-stages the idea of a “one-self God.” He claims, “God in the Bible is always portrayed as a great self” (pg 4). This may well strike the reader as odd. It’s not a Bible phrase, let alone "always." It’s also not something you usually hear people describing the God of the Bible as: "a great self"! No sirree. He quotes Brian Leftow using the term “one-self” for God (pg 8) and Swinburne. That’s it. And yet Tuggy’s literature review features much talk of a “one-self Trinity” and a “three-self Trinity” in a way that the literature he reviews doesn’t generally correspond to. Theologians through history who never classified their work in this way are nevertheless assigned to these categories by Tuggy, and the paradigm for this is his definition of 'self,' which is not one of theological depth or nuance. (I hope he wouldn't mind me saying that. It's not meant as a criticism.) So let’s see how this second main flaw plays out. (Curiously. Francis Joseph Hall (1857–1932) doesn’t get a mention or a bibliography entry. Hall, however, brings a theological nuance to ‘self’ that Tuggy might have wanted to visit.) 

So, under his classification of “one-self” Trinity theory: Tuggy claims that Barth and Rahner “endorse one-self Trinity theories” (pg 6) even though Barth scholars, for example, will be wondering when Barth ever did “endorse” such a thing (is it really appropriate to re-frame Barth’s divine self and modes this way?); also Leftow; and “Augustine is arguably a one-self trinitarian” (pg 90). Tuggy rather imposes his taxonomy on Augustine: “One must say “three persons”, but for Augustine these are not three selves” (pg 91). I’m pretty sure that question was never even put to Augustine. If it were possible to time travel, Augustine would no doubt not rely on Tuggy’s definition of ‘self’ anyway for the purposes of theology, but would draw up a definition and come to any conclusions on that basis under his own control. (I mention Tuggy’s ‘self’ definition further below.)

Unfortunately, what Tuggy is doing is veering off from the regular job of a literature review, which should actually be allowing authors to speak clearly, not to awkwardly squidge them into categories they didn’t choose for themselves. Some taxonomy may be inevitable, but not done like this. It becomes apparent why some of Tuggy’s citations give entirely the wrong impression of what other scholars have said - see my three examples above – it’s because Tuggy is pressing them into service to do something other than a literature review normally would.

Under his classification of “three-self Trinity theory” (a.k.a Constitution Trinitarianism – pg 21) Tuggy lists, for instance, Rea and Brower, Stephen T. Davis, and Hasker. Again, is this really the task of a literature review?

Tuggy’s definition then: “A self is being which is in principle capable of knowledge, intentional action, and interpersonal relationships. A god is commonly understood to be a sort of extraordinary self” (pg 3). A common understanding? Common among whom? (Besides, the term “self” seems rather limiting to me as a descriptor for a transcendent God. It seems to define the individual by their ability to do something instead of by any spiritual barometer.) It seems that what Tuggy is trying to do is to persuade us that ‘self’ should be central to our discourse by presenting it as if it has already been central to our discourse for a long time, which is questionable to put it mildly. I'd add that Tuggy's definition of 'self' defaults to a basically secular one, rather than an intrinsically Christian one - more on that below. 

With so many problems, it would be difficult to conclude that this is a successful literature review. Where does that leave this book? To recap, Tuggy’s book sets out to review recent philosophical discussions about the Trinity, particularly novel and experimental thought (a brave endeavour to review it). It is thought-games that philosophers play, a cat and mouse game of whether Unitarians or Trinitarians (and which ones) can erect a better philosophical framework of words and logic to explain or dismiss theories about the Trinity. But like Tom and Jerry, the fight always has another day. A lot of theologians are averse to the experimental approach to the doctrine as unnecessary and risking unorthodoxy, and so this sort of material is simply not in view across a wide range of published work on the Trinity.

This short book is written as a history spanning centuries, and it necessarily does so in a concise way, and it can’t be expected to be comprehensive. If you were hoping to find the likes of Moltmann or Pinnock given a mention here, you’ll be disappointed.  The emphasis though is on new experimental suggestions about the Trinity.

A note of caution: the reader needs to know, before reading this book, the basics of the doctrine of the Trinity, or otherwise could be left with quite the wrong impression of what it is. One would expect accuracy from Tuggy who has decades of study behind him. And yet one finds this on page 1 about the traditional doctrine of the Trinity:

“The guiding principle has been the creedal declaration that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit of the New Testament are consubstantial… this is understood to mean that all three named individuals are divine.”

Individuals? Understood as 'individuals' by whom? Not by everyone of course. Not by many at all. Rather than a traditional creedal definition, it is instead a rather extreme expression of Social Trinitarianism as espoused by Richard Swinburne. (See Richard Swinburne, The Christian God. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. pg 27.) Tuggy erroneously starts his book off with this problematic claim about a "creedal declaration" as if it were a well known historical tradition, which it is far from being. Individuals indeed! Yet Tuggy writes of its “imperial enforcement towards the end of the fourth century” (pg 1). This aberration at the top of his article/book is further compounded when Tuggy doubles down on it and claims that “the doctrine of the Trinity as explained at the top of the main entry” was “clearly and fully asserted” around the end of the Arian controversy (pg 72). No, I can’t find any council clearly and fully asserting “three divine individuals” and the fault isn’t mine here. Does Tuggy know what is actually traditional and orthodox? Of course he does, but he claims something different, which is troubling. 

On pg 25 this goes further: “Richard Swinburne… argues that it is uncharitable to read the ecumenical councils’ claim that “there is only one God” as asserting that there’s only one divine individual, as that would contradict their commitment to there being three divine individuals.”

Why leave the impression that the historic councils committed to “three divine individuals”? They did not use this language, and language is key. Swinburne uses this phrase (quoted on pg 26). The councils didn’t, and it is wrong to leave the impression that they did. I don’t think it would have taken the councils very much time to dismiss the term out of hand! (James Anderson points out that a reading like this diverges from the Church Fathers’ intentions. See Anderson, 2007, pg 42-43.)

So the book goes askew on page 1, and throws the tracks just as the train is leaving the station. It would be easy for the unaware reader to be thrown with it, not realising that Tuggy is reading in a sometimes idiosyncratic way, to put it politely. The destination, for Tuggy, is to conclude that the doctrine of the Trinity is fundamentally flawed and cannot be saved by modern experimental thought. It’s an idiosyncratic approach to a review of others' theology.

Oddly, when Tuggy does refer to something traditional and orthodox, he claims it is a modern interpretation attributable to Bohn! – “Bohn argues that orthodoxy, by the standards of the New Testament or the “Athanasian” Creed, requires that the persons of the Trinity be distinct… but not that any is identical to the one God” (pg 40). I don’t see anything novel in that.

It seems at times that the term ‘self’ is used by Tuggy in a way that mischaracterises the doctrine of the Trinity too. Thus: “Trinitarians hold this revelation of the one God as a great self… if these divine persons are selves, then the claim is that there are three divine selves, which is to say, three gods” (pg 3). No Trinitarian who really knows what they are talking about ever made any such claim to the best of my knowledge. It’s a caricature of extreme Social Trinitarians and it’s being used to smear all Trinitarianism. I would be embarrassed to write something that gave the wrong impression so badly. Tuggy’s usage of the words “individuals” and “self” often clutters the book with confusion about the subject at hand. Sometimes, it is difficult to resist the impression that this is polemics from the Unitarian camp: “We literally can’t believe what is expressed Trinitarian language, if we don’t grasp the meaning of it” (pg 46). It doesn’t help if an inability to make sense of a doctrine arises from one’s own presentation of it. (I'm also mystified as to how a seemingly subjective "We literally can’t believe" statement is in an encyclopaedia entry on a university website.) 

A niche subject that appears in philosophical literature is relative identity theory/ies. This is an idea only of the last century or so. But Tuggy’s use seems off-centre (pg 13-14), more or less as a way of arriving at the formal logic conundrum below. Tuggy depends on use of the count noun ‘God’ to promote a well-trodden Unitarian argument against the Trinity, and he claims that Trinitarians (e.g. Leftow – see pg 10) fail to provide a good response to this:

 1. the Father = God

 2. the Son = God

 3. God = God

 4. the Father = the Son (from 1-3)

Knowledgeable Trinitarians will wince at the un-nuanced travesty that this argument amounts to. The somewhat artificial problem is avoided merely by replacing ‘God’ with the word ‘divine’ and explaining what is meant by the word divine, as done by many intelligent orthodox Trinitarians. Once this is done, there is no need for 4 to follow 1-3 at all. (See his examples on pg 10, 16.) Tuggy also uses ‘being/beings’ as a count noun to the same effect. It’s an exercise in constructing problematic verbal frameworks. The problem is an artificial philosophical one, though much discussed in the literature. But instead of “being,” we could easily offer something like “existence-havers” or “existers” and the problem falls away. A lot of these knots are ones that Trinitarian debates tied in the first place, and one sometimes senses the Unitarian’s glee at seeing Trinitarian dialectic wrestling over self-made problems.

This is not a book about things written in the Bible. (You don’t need the fingers of one hand to count the Bible verses cited in this book). And don’t expect to find here any exploration of biblical semitic thought. This is a book of western philosophy, a realm which creates its own thought-worlds, and in particular it is a review only of a niche area of it. (It doesn’t acknowledge the existence of non-western worldviews, which is not unusual for this kind of book.) Trinitarianism has both semitic and western developments. Which brings me to ‘mystery,’ an idea that Tuggy covers. In Tuggy’s way of looking at it, Trinitarians use the label ‘mystery’ where a thing about God is held to be true without a fool-proof logic formula for it. Tuggy’s acid test for verifying a doctrine seems to be possessing a flawless logic formula, and he is hardly sympathetic to Trinitarian mystery. Eventually in this book, the thought peeps through that actually anyone’s belief in God at some point encounters mystery (pg 105). In the logic-driven west, we all draw a line in the sand somewhere on the mystery spectrum. The difference is where each of us does so, and Tuggy draws a line against the Trinity.

On mystery, Tuggy does acknowledge without proposing a reply the argument that there are real mysteries: “Sometimes an analogy with recent physics is offered: if we find mysteries (i.e., apparent contradictions) there, such as light appearing to be both a particle and wave, why should we be shocked to find them in theology? (van Inwagen 1995, 224-7)” (Tuggy pg 47). (In drawing attention to this, this is not to say that we should place too much store in analogies from creation.) There is a good deal in Tuggy's book on mystery – he uses the philosophers' word ‘mysterian’ signifying the the human brain is not sufficiently equipped to understand some things – and it is interesting to read other scholars' responses to Tuggy on it. It’s also worth noting that there are scholars who maintain that the doctrine of the Trinity is possible and intelligible to the human mind, although Tuggy gives more attention to the mysterian human problem. 

Sometimes when I read what Tuggy writes about the history of the church, the historian in me quietly sighs. His description about the late second century:

‘a “catholic” movement, a bishop-led, developing organization which, at least from the late second century… [was] out-competing many gnostic and quasi-Jewish groups’ (pg 80-81).

He doesn’t qualify what he means by ‘organization’ or ‘quasi-Jewish’ and doesn't explain what he means by the scare quotes around 'catholic.' Another example – Tuggy says that:

‘No theologian in the first three Christian centuries was a trinitarian in the sense of a [sic] believing that the one God is tripersonal’ (pg 81).

Well, that’s a bit too bold. How about Tertullian, On Modesty, XXI, 16? Or particularly Cyprian’s Epistle 72 to Jubaianus?

Now, some notes on the edition. References are in the text, not in footnotes or endnotes, and sometimes a book is unhelpfully cited without page numbers, e.g. ‘Holmes 2012’ – see Tuggy pg 24. There is a bibliography, but due to a fault by someone (Amazon printed on demand, so maybe them) the bibliography skips straight from M to R. So, for example, Pruss is missing from it. The book is also littered with typos and poor drafting: “the the” is not untypical. We read of ‘Trinitians’ and ‘Trinitarinas.’ Persons become ‘Perons,’ and we meet ‘Gregory of Naziansus.’ I could go on. It is difficult to believe that this article/book went through much, if any, independent editing, let alone peer review. Given that it first appeared on the Stanford website as an online encyclopaedia entry, it’s perplexing in its faults.

On a personal note, I prefer to see what semitic thought portrays, and to see if western philosophy can catch up. Nonetheless there is much to enjoy in this book, and the most enjoyable part for me was its history of Unitarian movements from the 16th century onwards, although it seems slightly odd that around 15% of a book titled ‘Trinity’ is devoted to a short history of Unitarianism. (And I don't mean to say that this is simply due to Tuggy being a Unitarian who sometimes criticises Trinitarian positions. Only Tuggy can confirm whether that forms a part of his motivation in any case.) And if I take one main thing from this book, it is a desire to read Duns Scotus. But if a serious reader wants an introduction to historic and recent Trinitarian philosophical ideas, a better book than this would be *An Introduction to the Trinity* by Declan Marmion and Rik Van Nieuwenhove (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Finally, back to definitions of 'self.' I can't resist mentioning that an article by Eric Olson found on the Stanford website says this on "self":

"‘Self’ is sometimes synonymous with ‘person’, but often means something different: a sort of unchanging, immaterial subject of consciousness, for instance (as in the phrase ‘the myth of the self’). The term is often used without any clear meaning and shall be avoided here."

It seems somewhat ironic, and potentially problematic for Tuggy's theme. (The article is on 'personal identity' and can be found here.) I do wonder if Tuggy's philosophy is over-relying on the Enlightenment's stable idea of "person," which would be questionable in the wake of the instability brought to the concept of person by structuralism and post-structuralism. Also problematic, some philosophers have noted how ideas of “self” are called into question by the experience of conjoined twins – read here. The medical condition of split-brain syndrome is also challenging to concepts of the self - watch here. It is increasingly unlikely that “self” is a satisfactory category for our debate. 

As I said, Tuggy's definition of 'self' is basically a secular one, rather than an intrinsically Christian one. For a different Christian approach to the question of what is a human 'person,' I highly recommend the article here. It argues that to be a human person is to be "known and loved - first of all by God himself, and secondly by other human beings". A Christian definition of a human "person" might in the end not be able to go far beyond something like "one made in the image of God who is known personally to God," but that is an opinion for another day.

Disclaimer 1: philosophy is not my area of research and training and I am more than happy to be corrected on anything I’ve said above, and to make corrections.

Disclaimer 2: Tuggy’s online version of the article had a substantive revision on November 20th 2020, which I have not had time to compare with the book version, except to check that it still has the delightful typo ‘trinitarinas’ and the non-objective "We literally can't believe" statement.)


Scholars engaging with Tuggy

Some online posts that may be of interest, to see scholars engaging with Tuggy on some of these points:

Edward Feser touches on the theme of ‘self’ - Edward Feser: Dude, where’s my Being?

Edward Feser on God as “being” - Edward Feser: Present perfect

Aidan Kimel critical of extreme Social Trinitarianism and engaging with Hall - Father, Son, Spirit as Divine Selves | Eclectic Orthodoxy (

Other reading

George Plasterer on how Barth uses his concept of the divine self - Barth on the Trinity | Karl Barth: Church Dogmatics





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