A Second Look at Jason Dulle’s Oneness Christology

In a prior post I attempted to describe Jason Dulle’s Oneness Pentecostal Christology, and I then applied it to what Dulle says about Patripassianism (the view that “the Father suffered”). Thanks to his comments on those posts, I think I can give a more accurate statement of his view, or something similar to it.

It seems to me that Dulle’s view is a truly modalistic version of Brian Leftow’s view of the Trinity. I know that right now it seems odd, especially to the Oneness Pentecostal reader, that I’m about to describe a view about the Trinity and say that I think Dulle would accept the bulk of it. I simply ask that you bear with me to see the crucial modification that makes Dulle’s view truly a Oneness view, rather than a Trinitarian one.

First I’ll describe Leftow’s view and then say why I think what Dulle says about the Incarnation fits a modified version of it. (I’ll leave it to Dulle to confirm if I’m right.) Then I’ll address the problem of Nestorianism, and conclude with some comments about why my first pass at Dulle’s view, while not entirely accurate, was still an exercise in charitable reconstruction and a genuine invitation to conversation.

Leftow’s “A Latin Trinity”

I chose the featured image for this post quite deliberately, so take a quick look at it again (at the top of this post) before reading on.

Suppose that you and I have tickets to a dance show. For the first part of the act, the performance takes place in semi-darkness, where we can see the silhouettes of three women giving the performance. Ordinarily, we might conclude that there are three women before us: three silhouettes, so three women, right? But looks can be misleading.

Here’s the actual story: Two of the three dancers were unable to make it to the first part of the performance, so the remaining woman (let’s call her “Jane”) decided that the show had to go on. But how was she going to pull this off? The opening routine requires three dancers.

It turns out that she has a time machine. Jane dances her part of the performance as the leftmost dancer, and afterward uses her time machine to go back to the beginning of the act. She then dances in the role of the center dancer. After going through the time machine one more time, she dances the role of the rightmost dancer.

What you and I are actually seeing in the first part of the act, then, are three segments of Jane’s life that overlap with our lives on the “public timeline.” We are just seeing Jane, and we are seeing Jane three times over. In time travel scenarios, there needs to be a distinction between the “personal” timeline of the individual doing the time travelling, and those who aren’t so travelling. This is why our lives are on the public timeline.

The fact that these three segments of Jane’s life interact with ours at the same point is what allows us to see three dancers. But, at bottom, there is only one womanor only one substance, to use the philosophical jargon—before us.

Here’s what Leftow proposes: God eternally lives out his life in three ways without succession. God’s life is something like Jane’s time travel scenario. I say “something like” because backward time travel doesn’t even need to be possible for this to “work.” As Leftow says, even if pastward time travel is impossible, talking about it and imagining it can help us get a grip on other genuinely possible things. And if pastward time travel really is impossible, it has to do with how time-bound events in space and time relate. But on Leftow’s suggestion, God isn’t time-bound at all. So, God’s living out his life in three ways always interacts with us on the public timeline in such a way that we can say God really is a Trinity.

Now here’s the crucial modification that Dulle can appropriate: Suppose that God begins to life out his life in two ways subsequent to the Incarnation. Prior to the Incarnation, God lives out his life in one way. (“Prior to” need not refer to chronological priority here.) But the Incarnation involves two complete natures (a human one and a divine one), which allows God to live out his life in these ways: a divine way, and a human way. This sounds very much like how I initially described Dulle’s view, but it isn’t quite the same. To see why, we need to return to the question of Patripassianism.

The way I have stated the Oneness modification should be consistent with God’s being temporal (in time) or atemporal (timeless). If pressed, I could state in more detail how the Oneness modification is consistent with God’s atemporality. I’d really just appeal to how Eleonore Stump helpfully describes how God (the Son) can be timeless and yet incarnate near the end of her Aquinas Lecture The God of the Bible and the God of the Philosophers.

Avoiding Patripassianism

Leftow’s proposal, in part, is meant to take aim at the following argument:

1. The Father = God.
2. The Son = God.
3. God = God.
4. Therefore, the Father = the Son.

Obviously, for a Trinitarian like Leftow, the conclusion at (4) is unacceptable. If the Father just is the Son, and the Son suffers on the Cross, then the Father suffers on the Cross. But that’s what Patripassianism is. So how can he avoid that conclusion?

Let’s consider Jane once again, and an argument parallel to the one just above:

1a. The leftmost dancer = Jane.
2a. The rightmost dancer = Jane.
3a. Jane = Jane.
4a. Therefore, the leftmost dancer = the rightmost dancer.

It should be clear that the conclusion at (4a) doesn’t seem right. Based on what you and I see in the act, it just isn’t true. To avoid this argument, Leftow discusses the difference between definite descriptions that are temporally rigid, and those are temporally non-rigid.

A description like “the leftmost dancer” is temporally non-rigid just in case it refers to someone, and it refers to that someone at any point in their life. In a paper that responds to Leftow, William Hasker gives the following example: Suppose we say, “the 44th President of the United States lived in Indonesia.” If “the 44th President” is temporally non-rigid, it simply refers to Barack Obama at some point in his entire life. So even though, as the President, Obama lives in the White House (obviously not Indonesia), it’s still true to say “the 44th President” lived in Indonesia, where that description is temporally non-rigid.

On the other hand, if “the 44th President” is temporally rigid, then it refers to Obama only during a certain segment of his life. That is, it only refers to Obama while he is living in the White House. On the temporally rigid understanding of “the 44th President,” then, it is false that Obama lived in Indonesia while he was the 44th President.

Now here’s why (4a) doesn’t follow from premises (1a)-(3a). From Jane’s perspective, both (1a) and (2a) aren’t true at the same time. Both aren’t true at once one her private timeline as a time traveller. During the segment of her life that Jane dances in the leftmost spot, (1a) is true. But she hasn’t yet lived out her life and danced in the rightmost spot, so (2a) isn’t true. The same goes for when she lives out her life and dances in the rightmost spot: She is only then dancing there, and so just is the rightmost dancer. But it is no longer the case that she is dancing in the leftmost spot, meaning (1a) isn’t true.

This same line of reasoning applies to premises (1)-(3), and therefore Leftow (and Dulle’s modalistic emendation of Leftow’s view) can avoid (4). When God is living out the fatherly segment of his life, it is true that God = the Father. But when God is living out the segment of his life as Son, it is true that God = the Son. But on neither, personal timeline or segment of God’s life are both true at once.

Is Dulle a Nestorian?

Provided that Dulle takes Leftow’s metaphysical framework and says it applies only from the Incarnation onward, we might worry that the view is just another form of Nestorianism. At least as Scott Williams describes Leftow’s view, what we have here is one Boethian person (an “individual substance of a rational nature”) living out his life as three Lockean persons. John Locke famously argued that a person is a thing with psychological continuity, or perhaps a continuous consciousness. If that’s what’s going on in my suggestion for Dulle’s view, then the Incarnation involves two Lockean persons on a Oneness-modified Leftovian view. But isn’t that Nestorianism?

(Note well: The Nestorian worry does not apply to Leftow’s own view, when applied to the Incarnation! I’m not saying that. It only applies to the truly modalistic version that Dulle might accept.)

The first thing to say is that Chalcedon doesn’t have anything like a notion of “streams of consciousness” active in their discussion of Christ as one person in whom the divine and human nature are hypostatically united. So it seems to be a straightforward historical mistake to say that if Dulle has two Lockean persons in the Incarnation that he has a Nestorian view.

Yet, we can still ask if the Incarnation involving two Lockean persons still has the same problems that the Nestorian view does. But then we need to ask what those problems are, or are supposed to be.

It seems to me that there are at least four worries that motivate the rejection of Nestorianism:

  1. That there are “two sons.”
  2. That there are “two Christs.”
  3. That a mere human cannot atone for humanity’s sins.
  4. That the human nature of Christ was accidentally, rather than hypostatically, united in the one Person of Christ.

I will call worry (3) the “mere man soteriology” worry, and (4) the “accidental union” worry. The names for (1) and (2) are obvious. Let’s consider each of these.

Are there “two sons” on this model? As far as I can tell, there isn’t. Nestorianism, I take it, requires that there are two substances who are each a son. It’s true that, during the Incarnation, God-as-Father (or the “fatherly life stream”) and God-as-Son are involved in the Incarnation. As Dulle might say, God-as-Father is the “Spirit” of the Son, where “Son” refers to God living out his humanly life stream while incarnate. So yes, there’s two Lockean persons here. But there’s still only one Boethian Person; God-as-Father just is God (in that life stream) and God-as-Son just is God (in that life stream). There is one Person (God) who is living out his life as Father and as Son, and the human nature is not a complete substance by itself. We still end up with only one substance (God) who just is the Son in that segment of his life. This same line of reasoning applies to the “two Christs” worry.

This view also avoids the “mere man soteriology” worry. God-as-Son just is God (in that life stream), and is therefore God Incarnate. It is God himself who, by virtue of his human nature, dies on the Cross. There is still a God-man who atones for humanity’s sins, and this worry is avoided.

The “accidental union” worry stems from Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the Incarnation in Summa Theologiae III.2.6. What Aquinas is doing here is accusing what Peter Lombard called the habitus (Latin for “garment”) model of the Incarnation as essentially Nestorian. On the habitus model, the Incarnation obtains when God (the Son) unites a human body and soul to himself separately, without the two likewise being joined together. In other words, God (the Son) assumes the component parts of a human nature, but the component parts don’t comprise a human being because they aren’t united together. It’s rather like a man putting on a sweatshirt and then a jacket on over the top; the man truly puts on both garments, but there’s no real sense in which those two garments are united together, except in that they are worn by the same man.

Here’s what Aquinas says:

But the other opinion falls into the error of Nestorius by maintaining an accidental union. For there is no difference in saying that the Word of God is united to the Man Christ by indwelling, as in His temple (as Nestorius said), or by putting on man, as a garment, which is the third opinion; rather it says something worse than Nestorius—to wit, that the soul and body are not united.

Look, anybody who knows what’s going on with the habitus model and the Oneness-modified Leftovian view I’m talking about should know that this just isn’t what’s going on here at all. Dulle can still maintain that Christ has a truly human soul and body that are united, and furthermore that this complete human nature is united in the one Boethian Person who just is God-as-Son (in that life stream). So we have a hypostatic union (the union is in the Person or hypostasis of God) and no accidental union. 

If worries (1) through (4) are what are at issue in Nestorianism, and if I am myself understanding all the moving pieces here, I don’t think what I’m suggesting might be Dulle’s view (or close to it) is Nestorian, even though there are two Lockean persons involved in the Incarnation. This therefore remains a charitable reconstruction of (what could be) Dulle’s view.

On my First Pass at Dulle’s View

Now, when I first described Dulle’s view, I tried to avoid attributing metaphysically elaborate theories to him in order to charitably understand his view. To me, the way he speaks about his view is consistent with the way that I first described it, even if it isn’t quite right. To be honest, when I wrote my posts about Dulle’s view, I hadn’t yet read Leftow’s paper. In turn, I also hadn’t considered how Dulle might appropriate the metaphysical framework and apply it to his Oneness Christology.

So now I’d like to retract my initial construction of Dulle’s view, provided that he confirms that the truly modalistic emendation of Leftow’s view just is, or is close to, what he is claiming. This view, I think, makes sense of God’s ways of being conscious of himself, and also allows for Patripassianism to be false (from the timeline of God-as-Son). Though the God who is (in some life stream) the Father suffers by virtue of a human nature in the hypostatic union (in some other life stream), this doesn’t mean that the Father suffered any more than it means this for Leftow’s own view.

So, Mr. Dulle, am I getting warmer?

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