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 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 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 rigid. Another example: “My mom was born in California.” Well, “mom” there has to be temporally rigid, because my mom wasn’t my mom when she was born. “Mom,” as a temporally rigid term, always refers to my mom regardless of when she actually became by mom.

On the other hand, if “the 44th President” is temporally non-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 non-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?

2 thoughts on “A Second Look at Jason Dulle’s Oneness Christology”

  1. I just came across this the other day, so sorry for a very late response.

    I thought you did a pretty good job of representing my view in your previous posts, so I’m not sure why you felt the need for a second attempt. Nevertheless, let me respond.

    I am struck by the fact that this new post doesn’t seem to address any of my previous objections/clarifications. To recap, here is what I objected to:

    1. Your claim that Jesus could not be solely aware of himself as a man in his human mind/consciousness, and at the same claim to be the Father. I objected that there is a difference between knowing and experiencing. While Jesus did not experience Himself as Father, He could still know as a matter of fact that He and the Father shared the same personal identity.
    2. Your claim that “Father” and “Son” do not refer to persons on my view. I objected that I would say these appellations do refer to persons – but how many persons are in view depends on whether one is approaching the question from a metaphysical or functional perspective.
    3. Your claim that I hold “there was a time when the Father was not.” I objected that this was misleading. I simply make the point that God is not called “Father” until after the incarnation to describe His relationship to the son He begat, and to distinguish God’s eternal mode of existence from His new human mode of existence. Ontologically speaking, the one called “Father” has always been.
    4. Your explanation for why I am averse to saying the Father suffered on the cross. I objected that my aversion is not metaphysical, but practical. I absolutely affirm that the divine person identified as “Father” was the personal subject who experienced the suffering of the cross because the divine person identified as “Father” is the personal subject in Jesus. But from a practical standpoint, I avoid saying the “Father suffered” because “Father” is specifically used in Scripture to refer to God’s eternal mode of existence, and that’s not the mode of existence through which the divine person experienced the crucifixion. He did so via His human mode of existence, which is referred to as Jesus or Son. To say the Father suffered would be to confuse God’s two modes of existence.

    None of these are the subject of this post. Instead, it just seems you are trying to recast my view using Leftow’s concept of the Trinity. I have not read Leftow’s view, but based on your description of it, I’m not seeing how it is helpful for understanding my Oneness view, nor how the dancer analogy helps illustrates his view.

    The dancer is a single person with a single consciousness that only appears to be three persons to her audience due to a time trick. She is perceived by the audience to be three persons, but is not. From her internal perspective, she has a single consciousness, and she is consciously aware of playing all three parts consecutively in time. I have some questions:

    1. Does Leftow think this is what the Trinity is like? Does he believe God is a single conscious mind that is merely “liv[ing] out his life in three ways without succession,” and the threeness of God is merely a human perception? If so, I’m not sure this even qualifies as a Trinitarian view of God, and I don’t even know what sense to make of it.
    2. What does it mean for a single consciousness to live his life out in three ways?
    3. If the threeness of His life depends on human perception, how could it be eternal (since humans are not eternal)?
    4. If the threeness of His life doesn’t depend on human perception, what is the metaphysical basis for the two additional ways of living out His life? I have one on my view: the human nature. God is able to live His live (to use your terminology) in two ways beginning at the incarnation because He acquired a second nature at the incarnation. And on my view, these two ways of God living out His life aren’t just due to external human perceptions, but are internal to God Himself. While God is a single conscious agent, that single agent is aware of Himself and living out His life in two different ways simultaneously.

    I’m not seeing anything worth borrowing from Leftow’s view because the metaphysics of his view are either absent or unclear in your post. The metaphysics I have used to convey my view are the same metaphysics used by the early church to construct their theology proper and Christology (substances, persons, natures, etc.). For me to make use of Leftow’s view, or for someone like yourself to use it to better understand my view, it would have to be shown how his metaphysics are more friendly to my view than the metaphysics of traditional theology. As of now, I’m not seeing that. When you speak of how I would modify Leftow’s view, you appear to limit it to two modifications: saying God lives His life out in two ways rather than three, and that He does so only starting with the incarnation rather than from eternity past. It’s true that those modifications would be required to accommodate a Oneness view, but they don’t get to the heart of the matter: Leftow’s metaphysics.

    As for the argument you say Leftow’s proposal takes aim at, I’m not following:
    1. The Father = God.
    2. The Son = God.
    3. God = God.
    4. Therefore, the Father = the Son.

    On a traditional Trinitarian theology, premises 1 and 2 are false because they confuse persons for substances. The Father does not equal God because the Father refers to a person, whereas God refers to a substance. So one would never get to 4. So what is Leftow trying to resolve?

    You wrote, “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.” That’s not my view. I affirm that for God, He is both Father and Son simultaneously, by which I mean that the single divine person is both conscious of Himself and functioning as God as well as conscious of Himself and functioning as human simultaneously.

    As for whether or not I am a Nestorian, I agree with you that I am not. But I think what makes one a Nestorian is their view of the ontological identity of the conscious thinker “in” Jesus. If they either (1) affirm two conscious thinkers in Jesus – one divine and one human – or (2) identity the one conscious thinker in Jesus as an ontologically separate human person rather than the divine person, then they are Nestorian. Not only do I affirm a single consciousness in Jesus, but I identify that conscious thinking agent to be none other than the divine person Himself (He may be the functional equivalent of a human person due to living out His life via His human nature, He remains the divine person nonetheless).

    You describe this as one Boethian person in two Lockean persons. I’m not too familiar with each of these philosopher’s explication of a person, so I’m not sure this is an apt way of describing my view. I believe God is a single mental substance with two streams of consciousness (one divine, one human) beginning at the incarnation.

    BTW, I am persuaded of William Craig’s view that God was atemporal without creation but temporal with/subsequent to creation.

    Again, thank you for the attention you have given to understanding and interacting with my view.



    1. Hi again Jason,

      It’s not like I expect anybody to respond to posts on my low-traffic website anyway! It’s great you’ve taken the time to respond, so thank you. Whether or not I’ve been successful in describing your view in one post or another, the exercise has definitely done me a lot of good.

      What occasioned the reflection in this post are conflicting things that you say in both what I’ve read/quoted and in your comments in response to me. The main problem here is that you equivocate on “Father” and “Son.” In one sense, you explicitly say (as I quote in a prior post) that Oneness Pentecostals should resist the urge to use the terms interchangeably because they refer to God’s cosmic mode of existence (“Father”) and his human one (“Son”). But then you also offered a deductive argument in a comment to me to the effect that “Father” and “Son” are Persons.

      So, the two senses of “Father” and “Son,” in your own analysis, seem to me to be the following:

      1. Modal. “Father” refers to God’s cosmic mode of existence and “Son” refers to God’s human mode of existence (“Son”).
      2. Personal. “Father” refers to “he who is divinely conscious and functions exclusively as divine, in relation to the Son,” and “Son” refers to “he who is humanly conscious and functions exclusively of himself as human, in relation to the Father.”

      You seem to want to affirm both that “Father” and “Son” refer to mere modes or states of affairs, but also to Persons. You try to cash this out in the metaphysical/functional Person distinction. But the problem with this move is that, in the modal sense, neither “Father” or “Son” are Persons in any way. Rather, they are that by which God is conscious in two ways. And if you mean “Father” and “Son” in the personal sense, you don’t actually have a personal distinction at all. Instead you have one and the same Person who functions in two ways. But then we have my argument in my paper to deal with, which is that Jesus can’t be aware that he’s the Father when he prays.

      On that last point: The knowledge/experience distinction won’t help. Beliefs and the qualia (“what it’s like”) that accompany experiences map onto different kinds of consciousness. See Bayne and Chalmers on this. And what I have argued is that knowledge (and therefore beliefs) about one’s personal identity plausibly preclude certain phenomenal-conscious states. If Jesus knows (is access-conscious) he just is the Father, then how can he experience “what it’s like” (phenomenal-conscious) to pray to the Father as a distinct Person?

      So if you want to affirm that “Father” and “Son” both have a modal and personal sense (even better if you can without equivocation), and if you also want to claim that Jesus knows he’s the Father, this is exactly what Leftow’s metaphysics (so I claim) allow you to do. You want to say that God is Father and Son in one and the same segment of God’s life; Leftow’s view allows you to say God is Father and Son in distinct segments of God’s life.

      This allows you to stop equivocating on “Father” and “Son,” because God’s modes of existence in distinct life-segments just are certain kinds of persons (Lockean ones, or “streams of consciousness”). That is, your modal and personal senses of “Father” and “Son” collapse, so no more equivocation! It also allows you to affirm that Jesus prays to the Father as a distinct Person because the Father is a distinct Lockean Person. But he is still aware he shares the “same personal identity” (as you say) as the Father, because he is aware he is one and the same Boethian Person as the Father. Finally, it allows you to deny Patripassianism.

      In short, all of this allows you to say the things you want, using the terms you want, and yet affirm all the things that are important to say on Oneness Christology. Since I don’t think you (or anyone else) can unless they accept a modification of Leftow’s view, that seems like a pretty good payoff to me.

      By the way, if you think it would be mutually beneficial, I’m open to other mediums of talking about these things. I’m sure an hour of conversation could do us some good. Right now I’m not sure of a good way to answer all of your questions and objections in a way that’s timely for me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s