Scoffer or Scholar? A Response to Dale Tuggy

I have already received something of a lampooning from the Unitarian Christian Alliance’s (hereafter, UCA) chair and vice chair due to a post on the organization’s “affirmation.”

The strong reaction that I received is clearly because of the rhetorical flourish at the end of that post: “Unitarian Confusion Alliance.” I viewed this as a parody, not an insult. After all, the UCA has produced and promoted a video entitled “Trinity – Confusion to Clarity,” signs off several videos with “Bring your Bible, and leave behind the confusion,” and anybody who has read enough of Tuggy will recognize his line that Trinity theories are “confused and confusing.”[1]

The point of that post was twofold. First, Tuggy, in response to a critic of one of the UCA’s videos, asserts that “the Trinity” is “a herd of jostling, competing theories” and that this should “cast doubt” that it’s from God. But here’s a similar state of affairs: The UCA membership will clearly consist of a herd of jostling, competing unitarian theologies, each of which is supposed to tell us who Jesus really is. Second, I wanted to show that, from a practical perspective, it looks strange that monarchical Trinitarians (hereafter, MTs) can participate in the UCA’s vision. That’s because they count as unitarian on Tuggy’s definition of the term. 

Whether or not I accept the label of MT is actually irrelevant to that post, though Tuggy thinks there’s some significance there. Some of what I said has rhetorical force precisely because I’m granting Tuggy’s definition of “unitarian.” That’s the point.

Nevertheless, we should move to Tuggy’s challenge. Let’s talk about those definitions. 

Competing Definitions

There’s nothing wrong with Tuggy trying to pull me in to an academic debate over definitions. In fact, I take it as a compliment that he thinks I have the acumen for this. But his insistence that I replace his definitions with my own is unnecessary, for at least two reasons.

First, what the UCA is already doing shows that MTs are within their rights to feel unwelcome. The primary culprit here is their video called “10 Reasons Christians should NOT be trinitarians.” (The lower-case “trinitarians” here puzzles me in light of Tuggy’s discussion of “Trinity” vs. “trinity,” but I’ll let that pass.) It doesn’t just argue that Jesus as a “God-man” is one view among many, less plausible biblically, or perhaps just misguided. Rather, the video claims the view is actually impossible. 

Now remember that the MTs I have in mind (following Branson and Behr) accept conciliar Christology. But this entire video is basically an argument against Chalcedonian Christology. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that, despite what the UCA has said so far, MTs wouldn’t actually be welcome as members.

I’ll press this further. Paul Smadja, one of the UCA’s committee heads, thinks that the UCA consists in members who “want to glorify and honor the Father alone as the God of the universe.” But this is certainly not the vision shared by MTs, who honor and glorify Jesus Christ as YHWH and as the God of the universe. If Smadja’s view is representative, it doesn’t seem like MTs are really going to find a home among the UCA’s members as “like-minded” believers in the “one God” message. Perhaps I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem like there’s agreement on Tuggy’s definition of “unitarian.”

Second, it’s unnecessary that I replace Tuggy’s definitions because I have considered the arguments and I think that Branson has this right: Tuggy’s definitions are irreparable. I don’t need to replace them to believe this. I’ll certainly reconsider if he publishes a response to Branson’s paper. But all he really said on his podcast is that Branson’s definitions don’t satisfy some desirable criteria as conceptual definitions should. Fair enough. 

Yet, how good Branson’s definitions are is somewhat beside the point. His aim wasn’t to provide complete definitions to overthrow Tuggy’s, but simply to capture an important respect to which Trinitarianism and unitarianism differ: they are really distinct views. Does anybody disagree that they should be? If Tuggy’s definitions can allow MTs to be both Trinitarian and unitarian, they don’t “divide at the joints.”  

Tuggy’s quest for definitions really isn’t my burden to complete—it’s his. But how viable is this quest?

Tuggy’s Definition of “God”

Moving on, let’s consider Tuggy’s paper “On Counting Gods.” He first argues that a deity (i.e., a being with divinity) must (1) be a self, (2) be more powerful than any ordinary human (with regard to actions humans normally care about), and (3) have supernatural power. The concept of a deity is broader than that of a god. A god is that which is the main object of worship in monotheistic religions.

Then there is the concept of an ultimate, which “is a being/entity which is unique and unsurpassable in reality (degree and/or kind) and/or in explanatory priority. Roughly, an ultimate is supposed to be the highest, most basic, most real, or ‘farthest back’ being.”[2] If some being/entity is a godthen it must be an ultimate (so there can only be one god by definition). From now on I’ll use “God” to refer to god.

Consider these two (complementary) variants of monotheism:

A perfect being exists a se; that is, it must exist without depending on any other, and without its existence being explained by anything else. It exists independently, through itself. And because perfection also includes the greatest sort of power and maximal knowledge, if there is anything else, it exists only because the perfect being causes or allows it to exist. Given that there are other things, the perfect being must be in some sense the ultimate source of them.

Again, consider the uncreated creator of all else, the unique god of Abrahamic monotheism. This being too is ultimate; all else comes from him, but he comes from nothing else. If anything explains his existence, it will only be himself.[3]

From the foregoing we see a few things that Tuggy thinks must be true of the ultimate (and therefore of God), but he doesn’t give a precise definition. If I had to venture a guess, the most basic point he’s getting at here is that the ultimate is that for which there is no explanatory priority. The buck stops with the ultimate, and nothing “before” it explains why it exists. Just to be clear: God is an ultimate, but there can be an ultimate that is not God, as there can be an ultimate that isn’t a self. 

What the foregoing (and the chart on p. 197 of the paper) implies is this:

S just is God if and only if (a) is a deity and (b) is an ultimate. 

And keep in mind the three necessary and sufficient conditions for deity: (i) selfhood (being a self), (ii) power greater than humans, (iii) supernatural power. 

As Tuggy says in the paper, he conceives of God along “theistic personalist” lines. (His friend Edward Feser has some good blog posts on this.) When we consider Tuggy’s numbered table, in the column under “g = 1 (u = 0),” #5 and #8 are types of monotheism if and only if they are theistic personalist views. I find it odd that Tuggy complained about Oppy’s definition of “God” because it doesn’t allow certain Buddhists to be atheists as they explicitly claim to be, and yet when it comes to certain kinds of Christians, his schema simply lets them fall into a form of atheism despite any complaint they might have to the contrary.[4] 

Anyway, this matters because the MTs I have in mind are not theistic personalists. I take it the UCA isn’t going to take a stand on this point, and therefore is going to allow some form of atheists, or “Ultimists,” who are also MTs into the fold. I’ll also leave it up to the reader to consider what this also implies about the narrative that there were only unitarians from the 1st century until AD 381.   

The Tri-Personal God and Unitarianism 

In what follows, we are going to consider this argument: 

(1) S just is God if and only if (a) is a deity and (b) is an ultimate. 
(2) The Father is a deity.
(3) The Father is an ultimate. 
(4) Therefore, the Father is a deity and is an ultimate. (Conjunction: 2, 3)
(5) Therefore, the Father just is God.

Since we’re talking about Christian theology here, if we reach the conclusion at (5), it follows that the conditions for Tuggy’s definition of “unitarian” are met.

(Edit: Fair point for Tuggy to press me on this. Notice that I say we’re considering the argument “in what follows” and not absolutely, as if taken out of the context of this section. And in what follows, the theologians I discuss accept (3) because of the divine processions, meaning the Son and Spirit aren’t absolutely/personally a se. So by the time we get to (5), these theologians are unitarians on Tuggy’s definition of the term.)

Let’s suppose that classical Christian theist UCA members don’t want to go along with Tuggy’s understanding of a “self” as a necessary condition for being a deity (and by implication, God). Instead, they will substitute the term “person,” which for them means something more like “an individual substance of a rational nature.” So these conditions are individually necessary and jointly sufficient to be God: (i) personhood (i.e., being a person), (ii) power greater than humans, (iii) supernatural power.  

To begin, let’s consider Aquinas and Augustine. Tuggy doesn’t weigh in on whether Aquinas is a one-self or three-self Trinitarian, but he does say that Augustine is “arguably a one-self Trinitarian.” In any case, both of these men have their heydays after AD 381, the year in which Tuggy proposes the tri-personal God replaces the Father as the one true God and we finally see the first Trinitarians.  

Summa Theologiae I.33.1 asks, “Whether it belongs to the Father to be the principle?” In his sed contra, which answers “yes,” Aquinas says:

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Trin. iv, 20), “The Father is the Principle of the whole Deity.”

In scholastic terminology, a “principle” is simply that from which another thing comes or “proceeds.”

In that same question in ST I.33.1, Aquinas doesn’t object that the Greeks call the Father a “cause” instead, since “cause” doesn’t have as wide a meaning in Greek as it does in Latin. So it seems just fine, as long as we are careful about what we’re saying, to attribute to Augustine, via Aquinas’ citation here in answer to this question of the Summa, that the Father is the cause of the Son and Spirit’s having the one divine nature. Clearly the Father is the source and cause of all else. 

In context, what Augustine says in De Trinitate IV. 20 is:

But that He was given twice was certainly a most significant dispensation, and we shall discuss it in its proper place, insofar as the Lord shall grant. What the Lord, therefore, said: ‘whom I will send you from the Father,’ shows that He is the Spirit of both the Father and the Son, for when He had also said: ‘whom the Father will send,’ He added, ‘in my name.’ He did not, however, say ‘whom the Father will send from me,’ as He had said: ‘whom I will send you from the Father’; thus He clearly showed that the Father is the principle of the whole divinity, or to speak more precisely, of the whole Godhead. He, therefore, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, is referred back to Him of whom the Son was born.

That is to say, it’s ultimately because of the Father that the Son and Spirit are of the same divinity (“Godhead”) as himself. So in their “sending” and in their divinity, the Son and Spirit must “refer back” to the Father. Interestingly, David Waltz has pointed this out to Andrew Davis at length in order to rebut the idea that Augustine was a “semi-modalist.”

There are other statements from Augustine that clearly use “God” and “Father” as co-referring, and which show that the Father is the “principle without principle.” Consider these from the Eighty-Three Different Questions:

God is the cause of all that exists. But because he is the cause of all things, he is also the cause of his own Wisdom, and God is never without his Wisdom. Therefore, the cause of his own eternal Wisdom is eternal as well, nor is he prior in time to his Wisdom. So then if it is in God’s very nature to be the eternal Father, and if there was never a time when he was not the Father, then he has never existed without the Son.
—Question 16, “On the Son of God”

Since God could not beget something better than himself (for nothing is better than God), then the one whom he did beget he had to beget as his equal. For if he had the desire and not the power, then he is weak; if he had the power and not the desire, then he is envious. From this it follows that God has begotten the Son as his equal.
—Question 50, “On the Equality of the Son”

So, for Augustine (and Aquinas who is citing him approvingly), the Father is the only “principle without principle,” that one from which all else comes. 

Gilles Emery’s explanations of the Father as the “principle without principle” seem to indicate that I have this correct:

The Father, as Augustine puts it, is “principle without principle,” “principle of the whole divinity,'” or “principle of the deity.” This means that, without receiving his being from another, the Father is the principle both of the Son whom he engenders and of the Holy Spirit who proceeds from him; he is the principle from whom the other persons come forth.[5]


In this discussion, the Father appears as the source and end of the whole divine economy. On the one side [i.e., as source], the Father is the origin of all things: he is the principle of the Son and of the Holy Spirit through whom he acts on the world. It is through the generation of the Son and by the procession of the Holy Spirit that the Father exercises his paternal action. He is in this sense the source of creation, because he is the source of the persons through whom he creates the world. The Father also acts as the conclusion of the missions of Son and Spirit. The work of the Son and Holy Spirit consists in leading us to the Father. The Father is thus, in an Augustinian phrase which Thomas echoes, “the principle to which we return.” The Father is the personal conclusion of our journey, because he is the source of the Son and the Holy Spirit through whom he is re-joined to us and we are led to him.[6]

Now, for these illustrious theologians, is the Father a deity? Check. Is he an ultimate? Sure looks like it. Conjunction-junction… and there we have it: the conclusion at (5) is true. Augustine and Aquinas are unitarians, on Tuggy’s understanding of things. At face value, I wouldn’t have thought these men supported the UCA’s “one God” message.

(Edit: Again, to be clear thanks to Tuggy’s response, they count as unitarians because they both accept premise (3) thanks to the doctrine of divine processions. So the Son and Spirit aren’t personally a se, and the Father thereby can’t be numerically identical to them.)

If Tuggy doesn’t want to listen to me or these quotations from Augustine, maybe he’ll listen to Hasker, who says, “In the ancient Church, that the Son and Spirit somehow owe their existence to the Father was universally accepted,[7] and “the derivation of the Son and the Holy Spirit from the Father was not in question in the ancient Church.”[8] 

In the same chapter, Hasker argues for preserving the processions “in God.” So he also wants to take on the “universally accepted” idea that the Son and Spirit “somehow owe their existence to the Father.” In fact, he suggests the following to see if we can understand whether the “processions” in God are intelligible:

God the Father eternally communicates the totality of the one undivided divine nature to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, and in so doing brings about the existence of the Son and the Holy Spirit.[9] 

And in fact, Hasker believes “it would take an extraordinarily powerful objection to justify rejecting the doctrine of processions.”[10] 

Now run the same argument as the above with “self” as the condition for deity, as Tuggy originally stated. Hasker is a three-self Trinitarian, as Tuggy has said. Therefore, the Father is a self. And on Tuggy’s understanding of an ultimate, in addition to Hasker’s claims about the Father as the one who “brings about the existence of the Son and Spirit,” we get the premise that the Father is an ultimate. Therefore, from Tuggy’s own definitions of these concepts, the Father just is God even for Hasker. That makes Hasker, who’s supposed to be a three-self, tri-personal God Trinitarian, a unitarian. 

We have to notice that a certain tempting response isn’t available to Tuggy here. He can’t cite his own work arguing that Hasker’s Trinity implies tritheism, and therefore Hasker is actually just inconsistent (like, as he’s told me, Basil being a “unitarian tritheist”). And the reason he can’t respond this way is precisely because of premise (1) of the argument we’re considering.[11] Because of this premise (which again is Tuggy’s own belief), Hasker can’t be a tritheist in the first place: the Son and Spirit aren’t also ultimates. Only the Father is an ultimate, and therefore just is God. 

What Tuggy has to do, it seems to me, is to say that, for Hasker, the Son and Spirit can’t have the benefit of being called “God.” On Tuggy’s own definition of God, it looks like Hasker is also a “subordinationist unitarian.” But again, I thought Hasker was supposed to be a three-self Trinitarian, not a unitarian. 

I’ve gone on long enough, but the foregoing leads to these three options (or combination of them): (1) bite the bullet and admit these men really are unitarians; (2) reject Tuggy’s definition of “God”; (3) reject Tuggy’s definition of “unitarian.” It seems to me that (3) going to have the smallest cost for Tuggy. 


In summary, here’s what I argued:

  1. It’s unnecessary that I replace Tuggy’s definitions because (1) MTs have every right to feel unwelcome in the UCA anyway and (2) Branson’s analysis of his definitions seems correct to me.
  2. Tuggy in fact thinks that MTs are a form of atheists, since they are classical theists. Not a welcoming thought.
  3. If we jump inside the worldview of other classical theists, even those Tuggy would say believe in a tri-personal God are unitarians (e.g., Augustine and Aquinas). 
  4. Even if we use selfhood as a condition for deity, on Tuggy’s own understanding of things, it turns out that Hasker—a three-self Trinitarian who clearly assents to the divine processions—is a unitarian. 

It seems to me that, no matter what, MTs arguably aren’t welcome in the UCA, despite protests to the contrary. And we have good reasons to reject Tuggy’s definition of “unitarian,” and therefore that MTs just are unitarians.  

As an apt ending to a grueling week and post, I offer us all this prayer as we surely continue to discuss these matters, I think, as friends: 

Therefore, I too call upon You, O Lord, God of Abraham, and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who because of the multitude of Your mercies has shown Your good pleasure toward us that we might know You; who made heaven and earth, who has dominion over all things; who are the only true God, above whom there is no other God. Through our Lord Jesus Christ grant the gift of the Holy Spirit; and grant that everyone who reads this writing may know You, that You alone are God, and may be strengthened in You, and may separate himself from every heretical, godless, and impious doctrine.
—Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.6.4 (trans. Dominic J. Unger)[12]

Acknowledgements: I offer my gratitude especially to Brandon Duke, who was patient with my response and sought to understand what I was saying. He also offered me feedback on a prior draft of this post. Special thanks to Micah Fulmer for helping me make this post more readable.

Dr. Tuggy has responded to this post: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

[1] Dale Tuggy and Christopher M. Date, Is Jesus Human and Not Divine? A Debate (Apollo: Ichthus Publications, 2020), 2.

[2] Dale Tuggy, “On Counting Gods,” TheoLogica 1, no. 1 (2017): 195. 

[3] Ibid., 196 (bold emphasis added; italics original). 

[4] Ibid., 209. 

[5] Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of Saint Thomas Aquinas, trans. Francesca Aran Murphy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 172. 

[6]  Ibid., 174. 

[7] Hasker, Metaphysics and the Tri-Personal God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 214. 

[8] Ibid., 222.

[9] Ibid., 220.  

[10] Ibid., 223.

[11] My thanks to Beau Branson for pointing this out to me. 

[12] P. S. Irenaeus wasn’t a unitarian. Compare the logic of Against Heresies 2.17 with On the Apostolic Preaching 24. 


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