A Critique of Bruce Ware’s “Equality of Identity” Concept

By way of prolegomena, this is the logical problem of the Trinity (Martinich, 1978):

  1. There is only one God.
  2. he Father is God.
  3. he Son is God.
  4. he Father is not the Son.
  5. But 1-3 entail that the Father is the Son (contra 4).
  6. And 1, 2, and 4 entail that the Son is not God (contra 3).
  7. Likewise 1, 3, and 4 entail that the Father is not God (contra 2).

What to make of this? As Bill Clinton famously said: “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Here are five of them (Moreland & Craig, 2003: 174):

  1. Socrates is real (of existence)
  2. Socrates is the teacher of Plato (of identity)
  3. Socrates is human (of essential predication)
  4. Socrates is white (of accidental predication)
  5. Socrates is skin and bone (of constitution)

The problem arises only if we read the premises claiming the Father, Son, or Spirit ‘is God’ with the ‘is of identity.’ Yet these can be read with the ‘is of essential predication’ if by ‘God’ we mean ‘sharing in the divine nature.’ At least that is a common strategy deployed to rebut the argument. But it seems that some theologians are hesitant to jettison some sort of identity relation between each of the Persons and God. Why is this? Because, it seems, the oneness of God is at stake. 

In a recent article, Bruce Ware argues that the trinitarian persons share the strongest form of equality there is: equality of identity. But what does he mean? At first glance, he appears to mean that the divine persons share a similar sort of identity relation with the divine essence. Yet this is not to be confused with what he calls an ‘equality of kind’ in which two beings share the same nature, like two humans who exemplify the property of humanness, for example. For Ware, equality of identity means that each divine person possesses “fully and eternally the identically same nature as the nature that each of the other persons possesses.” This is what distinguishes trinitarian theology from tri-theistic theology, and he thinks that ‘equality of identity’ is strong enough to ward off worries about ontological subordination, which some see as a consequence of his commitment to the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.

I find Ware’s terms confusing. My thesis is that his “equality of identity” only amounts to an equality of kind, which he seeks to avoid. I further suggest that an “equality of constitution” is better suited to relate the desiderata of the oneness of God with the fully divine nature of the three persons in Ware’s social trinitarianism.

On Identity

What should we make of ‘equality in identity?’ In its most basic form, the identity relation is one that everything has with itself and nothing else. And if we are to use a word like ‘equality’ to describe attribute agreement between things, then we are using it to describe a sense of sameness. Therefore, we might think that if everything is identical with itself, everything shares in the equality of identity. That is, everything shares in the sameness of this truth. Of course, this is a trivial truth, and it is not what Ware is talking about when he speaks of ‘equality of identity.’ His is a stronger claim about a relation that is possessed by all and only the members of the Trinity.

So what about the Persons sharing “the identically same nature”—what does it mean? Two things it does not mean for Ware is a fractional proportion (each Person being 33% God) or merely an equality of kind (two things merely sharing the same nature). Rather, for Ware, to share the identically same nature is to allow us to claim three things:

  1. the Father is God,
  2. the Son is God, and
  3. the Spirit is God.

But this raises a dilemma: either God is identical with the Trinity or not. If not, then orthodox Christianity is false. If so, then the transitivity of identity is violated. For it cannot be the case that if the Father is God and God is the Trinity, then the Father is the Trinity. Hence, ‘to share the identically same nature’ cannot mean strict identity as expressed by Leibniz’s Law:

For any x and y, x is identical with y only if every property true of x is true of y and vice versa.

Rather, for the Persons to share “the identically same nature” seems to mean that they each exemplify the same set of properties that are individually necessary and jointly sufficient for divinity. If this is the case, then each Person is equal in exemplification, not identity. Why then invoke an identity relation when a similarity relation will do? It seems all we need to say is that the Persons share an exactly similar nature, for natures are such that they can be had by more than one concrete object.

Still, this is not what Ware is getting at. He wants to resist invoking a similarity relation, because it is not strong enough to establish God’s oneness; at best, a similarity relation establishes Tri-theism. Thus, when he speaks of the Persons sharing “the identically same nature” he really means that the Persons identically share the same substance, that is, the same individuated concrete, property-bearing object. But what does it mean to identically share the same substance? I am not so sure, but very roughly, I take it to mean:

For any persons x and y and some substance z, x and y share identically the same z if only if x and y are inseperable from z and exemplify every property essential to z.

Thus, the divine Persons identically share the same divine substance if only if they are inseperable from it and exemplify every property essential to it. I will not argue for the truth of this principle here as that would be beside my main point: the adverb “identically” adds nothing to the intelligibility of this principle.

What sort of relation could the Persons share that would be such that it would preserve both the equality of the Persons and the substantial oneness of the Godhead? I submit the answer is one of constitution: the trinitarian Persons are equally constituted by the one divine substance. Describing the equality relation this way has several advantages. First, it justifies the claim that the trinitarian Persons share the same set of properties that are both necessary and sufficient for divinity (the ‘is’ of essential predication). Second, it avoids tri-theism by explaining how the three Persons are inseparable from the one individuated divine substance. Third, it avoids the transitivity problem we saw with the identity relation to both the Trinity as a whole and the individual Persons.

How should we then think of the personal identity of the Trinitarian persons? On social trinitiarianism, it seems that a person is identical with a center of consciousness that has a personal viewing point, which is so constituted by some substance. Thus, the Persons are constituted by an immaterial divine substance, and we can conceive of the Godhead through the analogy of a human being that constitutes three centers of consciousness. Imagine for a moment what it might be like for three personal viewing points to share the same space behind your eyes. This is no three-headed monster of Greek mythology, but a tri-personal being instantiated by one human substance. An incredible thought! The point is that we are able to retain the Persons’ ontological distinctiveness as persons while giving the unity of their divine nature its due (if you are a Latin trinitiarian, then think of a 60 year-old man time-traveling to visit his 30 year-old self. They have such a great time that the time-travel to visit their 15 year-old self. Here again, we have one [tri-located] substance instantiating three personal viewing points. A rough analogy to be sure, but the ideas of ontological oneness, dependence, and equality remain).

On Equality

What does this imply for trinitarian relations? Recently I defended the proposition that it is logically impossible for a person X to be at once ontologically equal with person Y, and yet functionally subordinate to Y by virtue of X’s ontology. What does this mean? I originally argued that if X’s ontology requires X to be subordinate to Y, then X’s function is no mere function; rather, subordination is X’s proper function. But never mind this talk about proper function. All I really need to say is that if it is the case that X would not be functionally subordinate to Y if X were not the sort of thing that X is, then it cannot be the case that X is subordinate to Y in a mere functional sense. That is, if one’s subordination to another metaphysically depends on the kind of thing one is, that is, if one’s subordination to another is ontologically grounded, then one cannot be equal with another by virtue of one’s ontology–something I have called “ontological equality.” Rather, one is “ontologically subordinate” to another. This seems self-evident to me, but others demur.

Why do they demur? Well, it isn’t clear what it means to be “ontologically equal” with another–equal with another by virtue of one’s ontology. Fair enough, but I never tried to give necessary and sufficient conditions for ontological equality. All I maintain is that a necessary condition of ontological equality is that a subordination relation does not hold between two relata based on what the relata are. Indeed, it is plausible to assume that some relations hold by virtue of the nature of their relata. The color red does not sound higher than the color purple, because colors do not have pitch. The number 4 is not heavier than the number 3, because have no mass. Rather, the relation heavier than holds between ants and ant-eaters, because, well, you get the idea.

How does this apply to the Persons of the Trinity? I submit that among the relations that obtain between the Persons, on the basis of what they are, there is no subordination relation. Given that they exemplify the same nature by virtue being constituted by the same substance, there is no natural or essential or necessary subordination relations that obtain between the trinitarian Persons.

One might try to wriggle out of this by claiming that the ‘being in authority’ property is not a constituent of the divine nature; rather, it is only a constituent of the Father’s personal nature. But there is good reason to doubt this, because such a property seems to be a necessary condition of the divine attribute of sovereignty. One is sovereign only if one holds the highest place of authority. If this is right, and Ware’s view is true, then the property of being sovereign would be something the Father has that the Son lacks; but this undermines their ontological equality insofar as the Son does not fully exemplify the divine nature. Therefore, Ware’s view of the trinitarian relations is false.

Conclusion

The strength of my view entirely depends on the strength of constitution relation, and no doubt the coherence of the relation is highly contested. But many of the criticism of constitution relation are lodged against material constitution, not an immaterial one that I am thinking of here. Perhaps the same criticisms apply, but that is another paper for another day. In any case, it should be clear that “equality of identity” in Ware’s sense doesn’t make much sense without the sorts of moves I make with respect to the equality of constitution.

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