The Will(s) of the Trinity

I’m no longer a Christian, see Lost and How I went to theology school and lost my faith

This was sparked by thinking about the concept of Trinity while revising Tertullian and the Nicene creed and so on for my church history exam. During the revision process I realised I don’t like church history (though it may be that I actually don’t like exams. That’s more likely.) I like writing blog posts though, so lets do that instead.

I’m going to ignore all this proceeds from stuff. Don’t care. I’m also going to ignore who’s subordinate to whom1 because… because.

We’ll start at human persons. That’s easy. A body. I am a person, you’re a person. We’re different persons in different physical person-spaces. Done.

But wait a minute, what about conjoined twins? To some extent they share a body. So we need something else.

How about distinct wills? That works. Except for Christianity. The will of the members of the Trinity is the same, so how are they still to be seen as distinct persons?

Back to our conjoined twins. They walk somewhere. They are, together, walking. Each of them is walking, they are both walking, the walking they are each doing is the same walking, but they are still distinct persons, with distinct wills, doing the same walking distinctly. Walking.

There’s not an appreciable difference between the unity of action and the unity of wills in this example. They have to both intend walking for the walking that they are both doing to happen, and for them to each both be walking they have to both want to be walking. They can’t walk independently, but that doesn’t make them the same person.

An aside on unembodiedness

Let’s consider people without bodies, whether they be unembodied because of some kind of nirvana-like daniel-from-stargate ascension, or because they are an AI named Jane that exists in a galaxy-wide computer network, or they’re a Peretti-esque angel, or a Pratchett-ish god, or whatever.

I’d like to group persons by their ability to act on the physical.

  • Normal embodied things - Humans, goats. These affect the world in the area they inhabit.
  • Very powerful embodied things - Superman, the Doctor2, Galactus. They can affect the world, around them in ways no-one else can, but they too are constrained to the limited area they inhabit, so basically they follow the same rules, this is merely a difference of degree, not of kind.
  • Abstract things - ‘2’ness or ‘the concept of a trinity’. These can’t affect the physical world. Or the non-physical. They’re completely and entirely impotent except when wielded by the mind of any of the potent beings in this list.3
  • The incarnationally potent4 - the ships of Ancillary Justice, demonic possession. These unembodied beings can affect the physical world, but to do so in the manner they do they must become embodied, and thus also have the restrictions of a physical body (or bodies. You should definitely read Ancillary Justice).
  • The universally potent - able to affect the physical world in any location simultaneously (or at any time, if your model of time allows).

If you’ve followed me this far we can see that unity of distinct wills is still required when we go up a level from conjoined humans walking to universally potent beings doing anything. As they could affect any part of the universe, they could do everything and also counter everything done by any other similarly powerful person, everything they do do must be done in unity, their wills must be aligned.5

In Christian understanding, this is not just a pragmatic unity and it’s not a grudging political bargaining of goals in some kind of cosmic minority government. Instead, the perfect love exemplified in the Trinity is behind this unity of wills, and is the reason our shadowy made-in-the-image-of-God reflection of this unity is our loving relationships.

Now that I’ve written some words about the nature of the Trinity I’m probably 6 kinds of heretic, but this was fun.6

  1. though I hope I got the who/whom thing right. 

  2. Time-travel to be everywhere at a single moment is cheating, and would probably be one of them universe implodey paradoxes (not that that’s stopped him before). 

  3. I apparently lack the imagination to believe that there is a real existence of abstract objects. Some philosophers and occasionally whacky sci-fi authors like it, but for me: Does Not Compute. Abstract is abstract, and there is a very real and not imagined distinction between the real and the imagined. To move from abstract to real requires creation (whether that’s the Creation of Life, the Universe, and Everything, or any given painter painting a painting). 

  4. I am unreasonably proud of this phrase. 

  5. This doesn’t require the universe to be the body of the being/s. If you prefer, think of the physical as the path being walked on. 

  6. Though people have been burned for less. Yay Church history.