William Lane Craig and the Monarchy of the Father (Part 1)

In a recent post I summarized a view of the Trinity that Dr. Beau Branson calls “Monarchical Trinitarianism” (hereafter, MT). The view is “Trinitarian” because it accepts that there are three fully and equally divine Persons. And the view is “Monarchical” because it accepts that the Father alone is numerically identical to God.

I also pointed out that on MT, the Father alone has aseity. It is this claim that I want to examine more in this post, based on some material provided by Dr. William Lane Craig.

I want to briefly explain Craig’s preferred understanding of the Trinity, point out some of what he says that argues against MT, and then construct an argument that Craig might give against MT.

Trinity Monotheism

In his “Defenders 3” series of lessons, Dr. Craig offers his own model of the Trinity. In the literature it is called “Trinity Monotheism.” On this view, God is numerically identical to the Trinity (i.e., God = Trinity). And on Craig’s understanding, this amounts to God being “richly endowed” with three sets of rational faculties that are sufficient for personhood. God is a “tri-personal soul.”

Craig thinks that a strength of his model is that it leaves the “derivation” of each of the divine Persons an “open question.” In other words, to hold to Trinity Monotheism, you don’t have to hold that the Son is eternally generated and that the Spirit eternally proceeds. But the end of Part 9 (and the entirety of Part 10) of Craig’s Defenders 3 series on the Trinity makes it clear that he doesn’t hold to each “derivation.”

The Father is (Not) Greater than I

Craig doesn’t think the eternal generation of the Son is rooted in the New Testament. I’m going to skip over those comments because they aren’t what I’m directly concerned with now. But they are worth considering.

Rather, I want to focus on another concern that Craig has, which is worth quoting at length:

These same theologians [i.e., Athanasius and Hilary] that affirmed the full equality of the Son and the Father also affirmed that the Son doesn’t have existence in himself but derives his being from the Father. I don’t think that, despite their assurances to the contrary, this can do anything but diminish the Son because he becomes an effect which is contingent upon the Father. Even if this eternal procession takes place necessarily and apart from the Father’s will, the Son is less than the Father because the Father alone exists a se, that is to say through himself or of himself. He has aseity. The Father exists a se while the Son exists through another.
—Defenders 3, Doctrine of God: Trinity (Part 9)

This concern is unpacked in greater length in Part 10 of the series. Craig has diligently read in the church fathers for years, so he knows that they don’t wish to accept some regrettable form of subordinationism.

Yet, as Craig points out, Athanasius understood John 14:28 (“The Father is greater than I”) to refer to the fact that the Son is eternally generated from the Father. Craig also quotes Hilary’s approval of this understanding, but then adds that Hilary denies that the Son is “inferior” to the Father. Craig’s response is the following:

That’s just to talk logical nonsense. That’s like saying that six is greater than three, but three is not less than six. That just doesn’t make logical sense.
—Defenders 3, Doctrine of God: Trinity (Part 10)

To avoid this sort of “logical nonsense,” Craig brings up one of the Cappadocian fathers, who says that the Father is greater because of “origination,” but the Son is equal to the Father because of “nature.” But, if one wants to hold that the Father’s aseity is a great-making property, then it still seems that the Father is greater than the Son and we have a kind of subordinationism: the Father has a great-making property than the Son doesn’t have.

Now we can see what Craig really wants to say about all of this:

To be dependent upon the unoriginated being [i.e., the Father] for one’s existence is to lack a ground of being in oneself alone, and that surely is not as great as to be a self-existent being which is able to exist all on one’s own. It has the ground of its existence in itself. This kind of derivative being is the same way in which creatures exist. Creatures exist in virtue of being caused by another.

So despite the protestations to the contrary, it does seem to me that Nicaean orthodoxy has not completely shed the sort of subordinationism that was introduced into the doctrine of the Trinity by the early Greek apologists with their Logos doctrine.
—Defenders 3, Doctrine of God: Trinity (Part 10)

This section has gone by very quickly by way of summary, so let’s get into Craig’s comments in a bit more detail and see what kind of formal argument he might give here.

How Great is Our God?

Craig’s remarks against “Nicaean orthodoxy” used the concept of a “great-making” property. But what’s that? One way to put it is that a great-making property is a property that makes the being who exemplifies it greater than it would have been without that property. More colloquially, it is a property that it is greater to have than to lack. I think from what Craig says above this is what he means, and he also seems to assume this understanding elsewhere.

Now, it seems that Craig is assuming the concept of what I will call “Maximal Perfection.”[1] Defining this idea, we have:

Maximal Perfection (MP). A being x has MP if and only if x has every great-making property.

This allows us to state the argument Craig might give in the following way:

  1. If the Son does not have aseity, then the Son does not have MP.
  2. If the Son does not have MP, then subordinationism is true.
  3. Therefore, if the Son does not have aseity, then subordinationism is true.
  4. Subordinationism is false.
  5. Therefore, it is false that the Son does not have aseity.
  6. Therefore, the Son has aseity.

If the Son has aseity, then obviously one of the claims (that Branson makes, at least) involved in MT is false. Now let’s see how Craig might justify these premises.

Analyzing the Argument

Premise (1). If we grant that aseity is a great-making property and grant the definition of MP, then this premise is true by definition. The argument for this premise is:

1.1. Suppose that the Son does not have aseity.
1.2. Therefore, there is a great-making property the Son doesn’t have.
1.3. Therefore, the Son does not have MP.
Therefore, if the Son does not have aseity, then the Son does not have MP. (Conditional Proof: 1.1-1.3)

Premise (2). In order to have this premise follow from a supporting argument, we need to draw out an assumption that I think Craig is making. It is this principle:

SUB. For any two things (call them “x” and “y”), if x has any great-making property F that y doesn’t have, then x is greater than y.
SUB. (x)(y)(F)[(Fx & ~Fy) → G(x, y)]

This principle, along with premises the proponent of MT grants, leads to this argument in favor of premise (2):

2.1. Suppose the Son does not have MP.
2.2. SUB.
2.3. Therefore, if the Father has aseity and the Son does not have aseity, then the Father is greater than the Son. (Universal Elimination: 2.2)
2.4. The Father has aseity.
2.5. The Son does not have aseity.
2.6. Therefore, the Father has aseity and the Son does not have aseity. (Conjunction: 2.4, 2.5)
2.7. Therefore, the Father is greater than the Son. (Modus Ponens: 2.3, 2.6)
2.8. If the Father is greater than the Son, then subordinationism is true.
2.9. Therefore, subordinationism is true. (Modus Ponens: 2.7, 2.8)
Therefore, if the Son does not have MP, then subordinationism is true. (Conditional Proof: 2.1-2.9)

I assume that Craig would think that premise (2.8) is true by definition. For him, it seems that “subordinationism” refers to the fact that the Son is somehow “less” than the Father in any way (apart from the Incarnation). So, to say the Father is greater than the Son (and thus that the Son is less than the Father) is just to say that subordinationism is true.

Furthermore, premises (2.4) and (2.5) are unobjectionable because they are claims that the proponent of MT accepts.

Premise (3). This follows from premises (1) and (2) via hypothetical syllogism.

Premise (4). Craig will say that any orthodox Christian ought to accept this premise.

Premise (5). This follows via modus tollens from premises (3) and (4).

Premise (6). This follows via negation elimination from premise 5.

Escaping the Argument

Which premise will the proponent of MT deny? There are a couple of options to consider.

Deny premise (1). Since this premise assumes that aseity is a great-making property, one can simply deny that assumption. But there’s a problem with that route.

In Branson’s presentation, he points out that to say that the Father alone is God (i.e., only Father = God) amounts to the idea that the Father alone is the source of all else, including within the Trinity. If we deny that the Father’s aseity is a great-making property, we no longer have a clear way to assert that the Father is the source of all else, and therefore that the Father alone is numerically identical to God.

In other words, denying that aseity is a great-making property seems to leave the proponent of MT with no objective way to assert only Father = God rather than (e.g., in Craig’s case) that Trinity = God.

Deny premise (2). To do this, the proponent of MT needs to deny one (or more) of the premises in (2.1) through (2.9). It seems to me that the only way to do this is to deny premise (2.2), and therefore the suppressed principle SUB. We can do this by denying that the “greater than” relation in SUB is a two-place relation. To say a relation is “x-place” means that there are x-number of terms required to make the relation “work.” For example, the relation “taller than” takes two terms (it is two-place), but the relation “between” takes three (it is three-place).

It might be that the “greater than” relation in SUB is actually a three-place relation, because we have to assess whether one thing is “greater than” another with regard to some “reference frame.” This seems to be what Gregory Nazianzen’s claim above amounts to (see Fourth Theological Oration VII). Namely, we can’t just say that the Father is greater than the Son simpliciter (two-place relation); instead, we have to ask if the Father is greater than the Son with respect to “origination” or with respect to nature.

Similarly, it doesn’t seem to make sense to ask if I’m greater than my children simpliciter. To assess whether I’m “greater than” my children, we need to consider whether this is true with respect to nature or to familial function. On one of those assessments (by nature), it’s clearly not the case (to any Christian, anyway) that I am greater than my children. But on the other assessment (by familial function) I am.

So what we should examine is this principle instead:

SUB*. For any two things (call them “x” and “y”), if x has any great-making property F that y doesn’t have, then x is greater than y with respect to some z.
SUB*. (x)(y)(F){[Fx & ~Fy] → ∃(z)[G(x, y, z)]}

The argument that premise (2) is supposed to give us has to be that the Son is “less” than the Father with respect to nature. That seems like what subordinationism amounts to, or at least what Craig thinks the worry is here. It seems that all along he’s been worried that if the Son lacks aseity and therefore lacks a great-making property, he is “less” than the Father with respect to nature.

The problem is that if SUB* is the way to go, then this makes the argument for premise (2) far from clear. By universal elimination, SUB* gives us:

2.3.* Therefore, if the Father has aseity and the Son does not have aseity, then the Father is greater than the Son with respect to some z.

In order for the proponent of MT to be forced to accept that the z in “some z” refers to nature, there needs to be some argument for that claim. I’ll save you my truth-table analysis on this, but the fact is that Craig can’t get to the Father being greater than the Son by nature from the concepts we’ve used so far. There are cases in a truth table analysis that give true premises but a false conclusion.

Even if I add in another principle that the proponent of MT would grant (I call it ORIGIN in the next post), he still won’t reach that conclusion.[2] Craig must establish that if the Father is greater by origination, then he is greater by nature (i.e., that G(f, s, o) → G(f, s, n) is true). He needs additional premises to do that; utilizing the concept of great-making properties and the “greater than” relation alone isn’t going to work.

I think that based on some of what Craig has said above, we might be able to construct a different argument against MT that doesn’t utilize SUB* at all. I’m going to explore that in the next post.

 


Footnotes:

1. “Maximal Greatness” would be misleading, because Craig holds that Plantinga’s modal ontological argument is sound. In that argument to be “maximally great” means something different than what I’m proposing here, and I don’t want to confuse the concepts. So I’ll stick with Maximal Perfection, seeing how some (it seems to me, at least) use “perfection” as a synonym for “great-making property.”

2. I’ll explain it in the next post, but ORIGIN is symbolized: (F)[(Ff & ~Fs) → G(f, s, o)], where F denotes aseity, f the Father, s the Son, and G(f, s, o) means “the Father is greater than the Son with respect to origination.” ORIGIN, in combination with premise (1), SUB*, Ff, and ~Fs can’t yield G(f, s, o) → G(f, s, n). Truth-table analysis shows that the latter can be false while all of the other claims are true. Results available on request to any sad individual who likes to look at truth tables.

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