On David K. Bernard’s Trinitarian Thought Experiment

David Bernard’s The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ is easily the most important book on Oneness Pentecostal theology from the last decade. It is a part of the Journal for Pentecostal Theology supplement series, and is in fact (what he says is) a slightly modified form of his doctoral dissertation for the University of South Africa.

Bernard essentially argues that Oneness Pentecostal Christology is the best explanation for why Paul used “language of deity” within what he calls a “strict” monotheistic Jewish context.

My purpose here isn’t to discuss that book in any detail, nor to break down Bernard’s argument. Perhaps I’ll do that in portions over time. Rather, what I want to do here is discuss a thought experiment that Bernard offers about the Incarnation and the Trinity, and show how the conclusion he is driving at simply doesn’t follow.

Relating to the Trinity

Bernard brings up the fact that (some) Trinitarians recognize that Jesus Christ, as God the Son Incarnate, would have related to his own Person. To substantiate this, he heads for the big leagues and pulls out this quote from Karl Rahner:

[I]t is true, objectively speaking, that when Jesus prayed as man, he prayed to the three divine Persons. Yet kerygmatically it would be incorrect to dwell on the fact that Jesus worshipped the Son of God.
God, Christ, Mary and Grace, 129

The point here is that if the doctrine of the Trinity is true, then God is a tri-personal being. And while God the Son was incarnate, he related to God, or the tri-personal being. Therefore, when he worshipped and prayed, Jesus Christ worshipped and prayed also to his own divine Person.

Bernard, some Trinitarians in fact, completely ignores (or is unaware of) another way to understand the Trinity. It is a way that stretches back, it seems to me, to the earliest of the Church Fathers, and was in fact the view held by luminaries such as Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa. This view is not that God just is the Trinity, but that God just is the Father, and that the Father has eternally communicated his nature to the Son and the Holy Spirit through generation and procession. God is the Father, not the Trinity, but there are still three eternal divine Persons.

Putting this aside, Bernard offers his thought experiment assuming that God just is the Trinity. He asks what would have happened if God the Father had become incarnate instead. As he notes, Augustine held the view that this was possible, and Thomas Aquinas later made even stronger claims. For him, it is not only possible that the Father become incarnate, but for all the divine Persons to become incarnate, either in the same nature or numerically distinct ones. (For a defense of the logical coherence for some of Aquinas’ claims, see Timothy Pawl’s In Defense of Extended Conciliar Christology.)

This is Bernard’s thought experiment:

We can further explore Paul’s distinction between Jesus and God by posing a hypothetical question from systematic theology, using the trinitarian framework: In principle, based on what we know about the nature of God in the Bible, could any of the three persons become incarnate? Or is incarnation a unique action that only the second person could take? . . . Since Augustine’s time theologians have generally assumed that any one of the three persons of the Trinity could have become human. Assuming the trinitarian model of God, let us imagine that the Father became incarnate at some point. The Godhead would have remained transcendent, and the human who was the Father incarnate would have related to the Godhead. He would have prayed to the Trinity, and he would have submitted his will as a human to the will of God. In short, this divine-human person would necessarily have related to the Godhead, including the Father, in the same way as Jesus in the Gospels. As this thought experiment indicates, we may be able to explain the textual distinction between God and Jesus in terms of incarnation rather than eternal distinctions within the essence of God.
—The Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ, p. 197

Notice, based on the last sentence, what Bernard is trying to show. What he contends is that, even on a Trinitarian understanding of the Incarnation, there is no need to appeal to distinct divine Persons within the one God to account for the incarnate Person’s relation to God. Even Trinitarians should admit that Oneness Pentecostals can really say that Christ, as human, related to God, and that he did so without any need of distinct divine Persons.

I have argued in publication that the fact Jesus relates to the Father does not logically entail that Jesus and the Father are numerically distinct. However, I think that the way Bernard is trying to argue for that claim here fails. The conclusion simply doesn’t follow from the thought experiment.

The Incarnation and Logical Possibility

One of Bernard’s major assumptions seems to be this:

A1. If it is possible that, on Trinitarianism, God the Father relates to his own Person in the incarnation, then it is possible to account for the “textual distinction” between the Father and the Son without a tri-personal God.

For any conditional statement to be false, the antecedent must be true while the consequent is false. I think that the proponent of the God = the Trinity view can accept the antecedent as true. However, I do not think that this thereby commits such a proponent to the consequent. That’s because Bernard fails to distinguish strict logical possibility from broad logical possibility.

To say that something is strictly logically possible is just to say that it doesn’t involve a logical contradiction based on the laws of logic. For example, it is strictly logically possible for a human being to run a two-minute mile. Where’s the contradiction here? However, it is not broadly logically possible for a human being to run a two-minute mile. This is because there are facts about human biology that keep such a state of affairs from obtaining. Even though there’s no contradiction here, it still can’t be the case that a human being runs a two-minute mile.

This makes it clear that “possible” in the antecedent and consequent of (A1) are both ambiguous. So there are actually four possible conditionals here:

A1(a). If it is strictly logically possible that . . . , then it is strictly logically possible that . . .

A1(b). If it is strictly logically possible that . . . , then it is broadly logically possible that . . .

A1(c). If it is broadly logically possible that . . . , then it is strictly logically possible that . . .

A1(d). If it is broadly logically possible that . . . , then it is broadly logically possible that . . .

I think what Bernard is assuming is A1(b) because the other options aren’t good ones. A1(a) is simply uninformative: If something is strictly logically possible, then we can explain how it’s strictly logically possible when somebody writes it down in Scripture. So what?

Now, if A1(b) is plausibly a false conditional (and I’m about to argue this), then the consequent can be false in a broadly logical way. If that’s the case, then the antecedent in A1(c) and A1(d) are both possibly false in a broadly logically possible way. But any conditional with a false antecedent is true on standard symbolic logic, and this is what we’d call a vacuous truth. I don’t think Bernard means to assert a vacuous truth here.

So what should we make of A1(b)? I might have an inactive imagination here, but I’m going to give some reason why the antecedent can be true while the consequent is false. So, I’ll grant that, if God just is the Trinity, it is strictly logically possible for the Father to relate to his own Person in the Incarnation.

But is the consequent broadly logically possible? Perhaps not, and here’s one reason we might think this is the case. God is maximally wise and powerful, and so is able, through his divinely revealed Scripture, to competently reveal truths about himself in the best way. And he is presumably able to do so in a way that fits the inspired writers’ historical contexts and in such a way that the writers can communicate what God intends.

It seems that, if God truly is tri-personal, it would not be fitting for him to communicate through his inspired authors in such a way that this truth becomes obscured. In other words, if God the Father and God the Son are numerically distinct Persons in God, it seems unfitting that God the Father, if he became incarnate instead, would relate to his own Person in his human experience. If God wanted to reveal that he were truly a tri-personal being, this would be surprising and, in many cases, misleading. (We might even be able to argue that this would be deceptive, but I’m not sure we need to push things this far.) Rather, we would expect that, if God the Father became incarnate, he would relate specifically to God the Son or God the Holy Spirit in his human experience. This would more clearly reveal, when the inspired human authors wrote about the Father’s incarnation, that God is tri-personal. And so it seems that this would be a more fitting way for God to go about things.

If something like this story is the case, then it doesn’t seem that, in God’s wisdom and power, that God the Father would relate to his own Person even if it is strictly logically possible for him to have become incarnate rather than God the Son.

Notice why this is a problem for Bernard’s thought experiment. What he is trying to show is the following:

C1. If it is strictly logically possible that, on Trinitarianism, God the Father relates to his own Person in the incarnation, then it is broadly logically possible, on Oneness Pentecostalism, to account for the “textual distinction” between the Father and the Son without a tri-personal God.

(C1) follows from A1(b) and the following premise by way of hypothetical syllogism:

A2. If it is broadly logically possible, on Trinitarianism, to account for the “textual distinction” between the Father and the Son without a tri-personal God, then it is broadly logically possible, on Oneness Pentecostalism, to account for the “textual distinction” between the Father and the Son without a tri-personal God.

But if the scenario I’ve (quickly) sketched could be the case, A1(b) is false and (C1) doesn’t follow.

Really, I think that Bernard is trying to make the point I made in my published paper, only he is trying to show that this just follows on Trinitarianism rather than some other metaphysics and set of assumptions. I don’t think that this works, so maybe he ought to consider what I’ve written. But that will come at a cost.

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