A Solution to Dale Tuggy’s Argument against Oneness Pentecostal Christology

A number of years ago I discovered Dr. Dale Tuggy’s website, and I ran into an argument that turned me agnostic about my views about God and Jesus. At the time I was a Oneness Pentecostal, so I held to the view that Jesus is the Father Incarnate.

Back then I was a history and philosophy student at the University of Washington. Thanks to some conversations with a professor in a philosophy of religion class, I started to gain an interest in what analytic philosophers and theologians were saying about the Trinity and the Incarnation. I think I first ran into Tuggy’s website by searching for William Lane Craig’s view of the Trinity (sometimes called “Trinity Monotheism”), and I quickly ran into a series of posts Tuggy wrote on modalism.

What I appreciated about Tuggy’s posts was that he first sought to clarify what modalism claims, and afterward tried to offer an argument against certain kinds of modalism. Oneness Pentecostals don’t typically accept the term “modalism” because writers often use the term as a synonym for Sabellianism. As I have explained in a recent paper, Oneness Pentecostals aren’t Sabellians.

Regardless, the argument Tuggy offered applies to Oneness Pentecostal Christology. In this post I’m going to share the argument and provide what I think is the most plausible way for the Oneness Pentecostal to avoid it.

Tuggy’s Argument

Here is the argument that Tuggy offers against any type of modalism about the Son:

  1. Suppose that modalism is true about the Son.
  2. Therefore, either the Son is identical to God, or the Son is a mode of God. (2)
  3. The Son is identical to God only if whatever is true of God is true of the Son, and vice versa.
  4. Some things are true of God which are not true of the Son, and vice versa.
  5. Therefore, the Son is not identical to God. (3,4)
  6. If the Son is a mode of God, then the Son at no time has a loving interpersonal relationship with God.
  7. The Son has had a loving interpersonal relationship with God.
  8. Therefore, the Son is not a mode of God.
  9. Therefore, modalism about the Son is false; the Son is not a mode of God. (2,5,8)

As you can see, there are nine steps in this argument. Each step that begins with the word “therefore” is a conclusion, and all the others are premises. After each conclusion are parentheses and step numbers that tell you how that conclusion is reached. These conclusions are derived deductively, which means that if the premises cited are true, the conclusion must also be true. Obviously, step (9) is a problem for Oneness Christology.

To get out of the argument, we have to deny a step in the argument. As a matter of procedure, we can’t object to any of the conclusions directly. That is, in order to avoid steps (5), (8), and (9), we have to object to the premises that support them, which are premises (3), (4), (6), or (7).

Premise (2) is an interesting case because, Tuggy claims, it’s true by definition. I actually think there are more options than he lists, but I’m going to grant it for present purposes. We also can’t deny premise (1) because it’s what the Oneness Pentecostal claims about Christ (minus the terminological dispute I mentioned above), and because it’s what we’re assuming for the sake of argument.

You’ll want to read Tuggy’s post about the argument to see justification for each step. But in his view, the only clear way out of the argument is to deny (6), which, to his mind, is implausible.

Jason Dulle’s Christology doesn’t allow for this sort of dodge, since he thinks that the term “Son” refers to a way that the one God is conscious of himself. That is, “Son” does not refer to a divine Person, but rather a way a divine Person (i.e., God) has experiences through his assumed human nature. If this is the route one wants to go, it looks like (6) is probably true by definition. I don’t think anybody who takes the New Testament seriously should deny (7). And as I’ve argued elsewhere, there are other problems with taking Dulle’s approach. Denying (6) is a bust, in my view.

Tuggy also says that this is just about as close to a knockdown argument for a view that you can find. But is that the case? For a long time I thought so, but now I think Oneness Pentecostals should deny (4).

Pawl’s Riposte

In response to Tuggy’s advance I will riposte with some clarifications from Timothy Pawl’s book In Defense of Conciliar Christology and an essay of his from the Journal of Analytic Theology. Tuggy has actually interviewed Pawl about his book, and I recommend it to readers as well.

Pawl’s basic view boils down to this: Certain predicates that are apt (or true) of a thing aren’t really incompatible for a two-natured subject. For example, you might think that one and the same subject can’t be both unchangeable and changeable. “Unchangeable” just means “not-changeable,” so how can one and the same thing be both changeable and not-changeable? Isn’t that a contradiction?

Pawl would concede that this is a contradiction if these are the truth conditions we want to use for “changeable” and “unchangeable”:

Changeable(A). A subject S is changeable if and only if it is possible that S change in some way.

Unchangeable(A). A subject S is unchangeable if and only if it is not possible that S change in some way.

If we want to understand “changeable” and “unchangeable” in these absolute ways, then obviously we’re going to come away thinking one and the same subject can’t be both. The same subject cannot both possibly change and not possibly change.

But what if we understand “changeable” and “unchangeable” in different ways so that the terms aren’t incompatible at all? Here’s a suggestion:

Changeable(N). A subject S is changeable if and only if S has a nature that can possibly change in some way.

Unchangeable(N). A subject S is unchangeable if and only if S has a nature that cannot possibly change in some way.

Now consider the Incarnate Christ, who has two natures. Is it true to say that Christ is changeable? Yes, for on Changeable(N) Christ has a nature— his concrete human one—that can change. Is it also true to say that Christ is unchangeable? Again, yes; he also has a nature—his divine nature—that cannot possibly change in some way. So, both “changeable” and “unchangeable” are predicates that are apt of Christ on Changeable(N) and Unchangeable(N).

What I’m calling “Pawl’s Riposte” is essentially the “has a nature such that” locution in the revised truth conditions.

Now, how does Pawl’s Riposte apply to denying premise (4) of Tuggy’s argument? Basically, like this: If the Oneness Pentecostal adopts a Model T concrete-compositional Christology, it is strictly speaking false that, subsequent to the Incarnation, there are predicates apt of the Father that are not apt of the Son. On a Model T view, the divine Person who is incarnate just is the Son. (“Son” here refers to the Incarnation in its entirety: the divine Person who is incarnate plus the concrete human part(s) assumed plus the relation(s) between them.) To the Oneness Pentecostal, this means that the Father is a composite Person subsequent to the Incarnation; the Father Incarnate just is the Son.

I’ll immediately admit that this gives us some really odd-sounding truth conditions on Oneness Christology. I think that this counts against the plausibility of the solution, but not against its possibility. Now I’ll explain what I mean here.

The Composite Christ

Here’s what Tuggy says about premise (4):

4 – Straigh[t]forwardly implied by many passages in the New Testament. Just off the top of my head: e.g. The Son was sent by God to save the world, but God wasn’t so sent. At Gethsemane, God wanted the Son to be crucified, but the Son didn’t want himself to be crucified. The Son is the mediator between God and humankind, but God isn’t.

I get the intuitive pull of these New Testament claims. But thanks to the two-natures doctrine, the Oneness Pentecostal is going to show that there’s a logically possibly way out here and just bite the bullet about how odd it sounds to us. I’ll only address each of the truths Tuggy mentions above.

With regard to the sending of the Son, David Bernard says:

The word sent does not imply preexistence of the Son or preexistence of the man. John 1:6 states that John the Baptist was a man sent from God, and we know he did not preexist his conception. Instead, the word sent indicates that God appointed the Son for a special purpose. God formed a plan, put flesh on that plan, and then put that plan in operation.
The Oneness of God, p. 184

If Bernard is right about what “sent” means, he might accept these truth conditions:

Sent(N). A subject S is sent if and only if S has a nature that is appointed for a special purpose.

Unsent(N). A subject S is not sent if and only if S does not have a nature that is appointed for a special purpose.

Christ’s concrete human nature is appointed for a special purpose, but his divine nature is not so appointed. This seems like an odd way to speak, of course, because we ordinarily think that persons, rather than their natures, are appointed for specific purposes. This may sound odd if a concrete view of natures is in play here, but it isn’t obviously contradictory (to me, at least).

What about wanting the Son to be crucified? I think that Oneness Pentecostals are committed to the view that Christ has two minds and two wills. That said, I suggest the following:

W(N). A subject S wills that P if and only if S has a nature in virtue of which S wills P.

NW(N). A subject S wills that not-P if and only if S has a nature in virtue of which S wills not-P.

Because Christ has a complete, concrete human nature, he has a human soul and body. A human soul arguably comes ready-set with a mind and will, so Christ has a human will. (If you’re worried about Nestorianism here, see footnote 23 of this paper of mine.) But Christ also has a divine nature with a will, and hence can will by virtue of that nature. So, Christ can will to be crucified by virtue of his human nature, and will to not be crucified by virtue of his divine nature. I would add that this can be the case only if Christ is not conscious, in his human mind, that he just is the Father.

Finally, we have the issue of the Son as mediator. A mediator is a sort of “go-between,” or a thing that, say, brings information from an interested party over here to another interested party over there. In his recent debate with Dr. Michael Brown, Tuggy seems to think, based off of a cross-examination question he proffers, that mediation requires three selves: the one mediated to, the mediator, and the one mediated from.

Now, I’ll be honest, I think there are claims in the New Testament that imply the Son and the Father are two persons. For example, I think that this is implied by the Deuteronomic two-witness laws, which Jesus quotes and applies to himself and the Father in John 8:17-18. Yet, I don’t think mediation requires that the Son and the Father are numerically distinct like qualifying as two Deuteronomic witnesses does. I’m all for arguments that show the Son and the Father must be numerically distinct persons, but I’m not convinced we can get there through the concept of mediation.

At bottom, I think this because revised truth conditions with the “has a nature such that/by virtue of which” locution don’t get Oneness Pentecostals out of John 8:17-18. (More on this some other time.) But it does seem to get them out of there being multiple persons in a mediation context. I suggest the following:

M(N). A subject S mediates if and only if S has a nature in virtue of which S is a go-between for two parties.

NM(N). A subject S does not mediate if and only if S has a nature in virtue of which S is not a go-between for two parties.

Like the other revised truth conditions, it should be clear that, as a two-natured subject, Jesus can be both a mediator and not be a mediator. I want to hear more from Tuggy about what’s objectionable about M(N) and NM(N). He should have a sufficient imagination to know that mediation doesn’t logically require three selves. For example, take Sully in James Cameron’s Avatar to be the only human left on Pandora, and the Na’vi try to go after him. The Na’vi don’t realize he’s the only human left. Sully does his Avatar thing and acts through a complete Na’vi nature to be a mediator between himself and the Na’vi. A peace treaty is signed by both parties, and crisis is averted. What about this scenario logically requires three selves?

As for Tuggy’s justification for premise (4), we’ve seen that, on the revised truth conditions I’ve offered, there’s no reason to think something is true of the Father that isn’t true of the Son. That is, if the Oneness Pentecostal accepts the following: (1) the revised truth conditions, (2) a concrete view of Christ’s human nature, and (3) that the Father is a composite Person (and hence just is the Son) subsequent to the Incarnation.


Featured image credit: “Exalted as Leader and Saviour,” by Lawrence OP



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