For some of my theology courses, I have had to read Plantinga, Thompson, and Lundberg's An Introduction to Christian Theology (Cambridge University Press, 2010). I am not really sympathetic to very much of their theological vision. I think they make a lot of the wrong dialectical moves: they reject classical theism; they affirm social trinitarianism and kenotic Christology; etc. In this post, I want to consider an argument against their proposed social trinitarian model drawing from John of Damascus, De Fide Orthodoxa.
PTL write the following about the trinity:
God is like a family, a community, or a society of persons (p. 138).
So it seems better to understand the Nicene homoousios in [terms of Aristotle's "secondary essence"]: Father and Son (and Spirit) are of the same essence in the sense that they are the same sort, same class, same kind -- persons who are all divine, who share a generic essence, each one manifesting the requisite divine attributes (eternal, almighty, etc.). Applied to the Trinity, on this view there are three persons as three primary essences united in one divine secondary essence, satisfying the classical trinitarian formula (p. 139).
There are some difficulties looming here, because this looks very close to polytheism. Presumably PTL want to maintain ardenly that "God" properly refers to the Holy Trinity, which is a single family:
But, finally, "God" in Christian perspective ought to refer first and foremost to the Holy Trinity -- the whole community of Father, Son, and Spirit (p. 146).
The problem now arises that typically, three things of a certain kind don't form another thing of the same kind. Three dogs do not form a single dog, any more than myself and my brother and my parents form a single human person. On the contrary, the name for the collection of three individual things with perfect individual existence is different than the name for the individuals: three dogs form a pack, and my brother, my parents, and I form a family. How, then, can the three persons of the Trinity, each of which are primary substances sharing in a common divine nature form a single God? "God" is what you would call the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, by virtue of their divine nature. Consequently, the collection of them has to have another name!
Consider the argument from John of Damascus:
We say that each of the three has perfect distinct subsistence; not, however, in such a way as to understand one perfect nature compounded of three imperfect natures, but one simple essence, eminently and antecedently perfect, in three Persons. For, anything that is made up of imperfect things is most definitely compounded, and it is impossible for there to be a compound of perfect individual substances. Hence, we do not say that the species is of the Persons, but in the Persons. Those things which do not retain the species of the thing made of them we call imperfect. Thus, stone, wood, and iron are each perfect in themselves according to their individual natures; but in relation to a house built of them they are all imperfect, because no one of them is by itself a house (De Fide Orthodoxa I:8).
The doctrine of the Trinity, according to John, is definitely not to be understood in social trinitarian terms such as PTL here suggest.
On the one hand, a compound can only be a compound of things which are imperfect as regards the nature of the compound. A brick is perfect or complete in itself as a brick, but as a house it is incomplete; it stands in need of other bricks, as well as wood and other such, in order for it to become a house. On the other hand, John insists that there cannot be a compound of perfect substances. This means that a mere collection of things complete in their own nature does not form another thing of that nature. As I said above, three dogs do not form one dog; they form something else, for example a pack. Likewise, a collection of football players do not form a big football player; rather they form something else, namely a team.
In the same way, if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfect in themselves as God or divine beings, then the collection of them cannot also be called "God." If the Father is God, then the three of them as a collective cannot be called God; it has to be called something else. Alternatively, if "God" properly refers to the Holy Trinity, the fellowship of the three persons, then each of them taken individually has to be imperfect as regards being God. They need to stand in that relation to one another in order to compose God, and none of them could properly be called God in his own right. Clearly both options are absurd and blasphemous!
So the social trinitarianism of PTL is hopeless, I think. To say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three primary essences (three individual things) which share a secondary essence (in other words, they fall under the same category of 'God') is just polytheism -- regardless of how tight we wish to make the connections between them. If it isn't polytheism, then it is something worse: denying the full divinity of the three Persons considered individually.