Sunday, February 12, 2006

Perfect Love and the Trinity

There's an interesting discussion on the Christian doctrine of the Trinity going on at Prosblogion. I figure this is as good a time as any to dust off some speculations of my own on the subject.

The doctrine Trinity, a cornerstone of Christian orthodoxy, may be summed up in the following two propositions:
  1. There is only one God.
  2. There are three mutually distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), each fully divine.
Now, while (1) and (2) are not blatantly contradictory--they aren't saying that there's one God who is three Gods, or three persons who are one person--their conjunction is not obviously coherent. How can you have three distinct divine persons without having three distinct Gods?

There are several popular models for thinking about the Trinity (e.g., the egg, the triple-point of water, etc.) but all distort the doctrine in one way or another and so fail to make clear how (1) and (2) can be compossible.

I want to propose a different sort of model, one that takes "perfect love" as its starting point (1 John 4:7). Note: What follows is highly speculative.

First, what is perfect love? I suggest the following definition:
Perfect love =def. A cognitive, affective, and volitional state of desiring and actively pursuing the true good of its object grounded in an understanding that it is the true good of it's object.
So understood, perfect love is a 3-term relation (X knows, desires, and pursues the true good Y of object Z), not merely a 2-term relation (X loves Y). Moreover, it is a relation with a threefold nature:
(a) Affective: Perfect love desires the good of its object.
(b) Volitional: Perfect love wills and pursues the good of its object.
(c) Cognitive: Perfect love knows the good of its object.
What constraints does the nature of perfect love place on the X, Y, and Z terms of the relation?

Well, for starters, it seems clear that X must be a person, for the possibility of having affective, volitional, and cognitive states is definitive of personhood.

What about Z? Well, it seems that the fullest expression of perfect love would consist in love of the highest or best type of object. And it seems that persons are categorically better sorts of things than, say, inanimate objects, mere animals, plants, mathematical abstractions, or what have you. Aristotle, for example, argues that persons as such do not essentially lack any of the capacities of inanimate objects, mere animals, or plants, whereas all of those types of things do essentially lack at least some of the capacities of persons (like cognition). Abstractions can be understood by persons, but they cannot understand persons in turn. Finally, some persons are better than others (contrast Hitler with Mother Teresa). So the highest example of perfect love would be perfect love for a perfect person, that is, for a perfectly loving person.

So the highest example of perfect love would seem to be the love of a person by a person. But what about Y? What is in the highest sense the true good of a person? Well, I would propose that the highest good for any person Z is itself another person Y that perfectly loves Z. Think about it. What is the single best thing in life? Isn't it the loving personal relationships we have with others, where love is understood in the fullest sense to have affective, volitional, and cognitive dimensions? And what would be the single worst thing that could even happen to a person? Wouldn't it be to be completely isolated, completely ignored by others? At any rate, this seems plausible.

So what I propose is that if God is, by nature, Perfect Love, then God must be tri-personal, for the highest possible kind of perfect love is the giving by a perfectly loving person of a perfectly loving person to a perfectly loving person. Hence, the one divine nature (Perfect Love) is necessarily tri-personal.

What's more, the other divine perfections may plausibly be argued to flow from God's nature as Perfect Lover. A Perfect Lover perfectly desires and wills the true good of its object (omnibenevolence). A Perfect Lover is able to perfectly pursue the true good of the object (omnipotence). And a Perfect Lover perfectly knows the true good of its object (omniscience).

Now, here's an objection: How can we be sure that the distinction between X and Y is real or metaphysical and not merely conceptual? Why can't X himself be the true good of Z, in which case X=Y, and the phrases "lover of Z" and "the true good of Z" are merely conceptually distinct ways of picking out the same referent (like the "Evening Star" and the "Morning Star", both of which refer to Venus)? In short, why is a third person necessary? I'm not sure how to answer that. Ideas anyone?


At 2/13/2006 11:55 AM, Blogger Ocham said...

Here by the way is a link to a parallel Latin/English version of the creed, on my website.

From William of Ocham

At 2/13/2006 7:29 PM, Blogger C Grace said...

I really enjoyed this post. About your last paragraph. Maybe x does equal y. Isn't the greatest gift of love the giving of yourself?

I am not quite sure how to fit this in but it seems to me that part of the greatest good of the love between two persons, is a desire to share the joy of that love with others. Think of a marriage and the rejoicing of the family and friends in the happiness of the lovers. Maybe two are needed for love but three for glory?

At 2/14/2006 7:50 AM, Blogger Tom said...

I think cgrace has a point, Alan. Part of two people loving each other is wanting to produce some tangible manifestation of their love. They want to give birth. It might not be logically entailed by every level of human loving (some married couples cannot produce children and don't for this reason love each other any less), but we're considering perfect love, love unimpeded by limitations. Also a couple incapable of loving each other do not for that reason love any less, they do lack a certain 'expression' of love that seems to be entailed in love's doing and being all it can. And what CAN love be? This might suggeset that two who love each WILL produce a third. A third what? A third of the highest sort of being--a sentient, personal, perfectly loving being. The Spirit then is the perfect expression of mutual love.

This might also suggest that the Filioque is right. Spirit does procede from both Father and Son. But the EO still have a point: Father is sill primary, since Son also procedes from Father.

So the argument for a third would follow from (the intuition of?) what seems to be implied in the perfection of love between TWO, and that perfection of love is the producion of a THIRD. So you have the "lover" (Father), the "beloved" (Son), and the "love" or the "supreme product of love in action" (Spirit).


At 2/14/2006 2:54 PM, Blogger Alan Rhoda said...

Hi c grace,
I like your idea that "maybe two are needed for love but three for glory". The illustration of the marriage celebration will family and friends does suggest that a mere twosome might be deficient in some ways.

I think seeing the Father as the Lover, the Son as Beloved, and the Spirit and the expression of the love between them is a plausible way of introducing a third person. If that's the right way to look at things, then, as you say, the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed would be appropriate. I'm not sure that the Eastern Orthodox would say that the Son "procedes" from the Father, however. Isn't there supposed to be some fine distinction between "being begotten" and "proceeding"?

At 2/28/2006 9:55 AM, Blogger Tom said...

Interesting attempt at a mathematical model of the Trinity:


At 3/21/2006 10:50 PM, Blogger Doug Rigby said...

Given your above referenced definition of perfect love between two individuals, it seems the opposite of perfect love could be either:
(1) a subject’s (person A’s) desire for evil of its object (person B) coupled with A actively and continually pursuing evil (inflicting pain and suffering) on B, or
(2) B being completely ignored by person A, and thus being isolated from any relationship with A

(1) could be termed hatred, and (2) indifference or unconcern. Both hatred and indifference could be extremely difficult to bear. In the short term, hatred may be worse to bear until it ended in a tortured death of body and mind. In the long term, the loneliness of indifference may be the more difficult to bear, especially in the case that B seeks love from A.

Rarely in life is a person B persecuted actively by many A’s. However, it is more common that a person B believes that all other people (A’s) are indifferent or unconcerned for B. This total isolation from all or even one loving A would be extremely difficult to bear.

Concerning God, perfect love is the eternal relationship between God and B in heaven. Hell could be either: (1) B experiencing eternal, active, painful suffering, or (2) B’s eternal estrangement from love and concern (of God and other A subjects). I don’t know which would be worse.

I would say hatred is the opposite of love because they lie on opposite ends of the same spectrum of emotional caring (active love or evildoing), whereas indifference is a lack of any type of caring or concern.

Fear is something different again in that it is B that causes his own estrangement from A.


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