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In ontological,rational,Richard of St. Victor,Robert Letham,Trinity

An Ontological Argument for the Trinity

by Justin Wishart

In Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, his main argument for belief in the Trinity is that God has revealed Himself in a triune nature, as is evidenced by the title’s beginning with In Scripture. This places him squarely within the Reformed/Evangelical approach to knowledge of God, an approach which I fully endorse. However, this is not to say that we shouldn’t be aware of arguments that are extra-biblical as long as we don’t view them as the foundation of our beliefs.[1]They may be useful. In Letham’s Historysection, he summarizes an ontological argument made by Richard of St. Victor.[2]I have developed my own version of this argument.[3]
An important term to understand in this argument is the term Maximally Great Being (MGB), which is a being than which there can be no greater. For example, if a great being possesses great knowledge, a MGB would be omniscient, and nothing greater than omniscience is possible for any being in the area of knowledge. Thus, a MGB would possess the attribute of omniscience. A MGB would be omnipresent and omnipotent as well, as these terms denote the greatest possible manifestation within their respective areas.
But, wouldn’t a MGB possess love[4] as well? It seems intuitive to believe that a being who possesses love is greater than a being who does not. If we accept this intuition, then a major plank has been set in accepting the overall argument.[5]This being would not merely possess the attribute of love as we imperfectly do, but a MGB would possess love perfectly, a love than which no greater love is possible. The question becomes: what would such a being, in possession of perfect love, “look” like without creation?
If God is Tawid[6], then we have to wonder what it is God loves without creation. The only thing in existence without creation is God, and so the only object for God to love is Himself. While a MGB would love Himself perfectly (He would possess perfect self-love), it is reasonable to think that loving another person perfectly along with loving yourself perfectly is greater than loving yourself perfectly alone. Thus, in order for God to be a MGB, the MGB must have a plurality of persons ontologically inherent as part of His being.[7]  I call this love face-to-face love[8], where your love is directed towards a person specifically.[9]
Likewise, while perfect love can be given to imperfect persons (e.g. humans), it cannot be received perfectly or reciprocated perfectly by imperfect persons. It is also reasonable to think that receiving and reciprocating love perfectly is greater than receiving and reciprocating love imperfectly. Therefore, a MGB would need the plurality of persons to be perfect persons, devoid of any flaws which would hinder the reception and reciprocation of this love. The greatest possible face-to-face love is between at least two perfect beings.
So far, I have argued that a MGB would possess a perfect self-love, and a perfect face-to-face love reciprocated between two perfect persons. However, I would also argue that a MGB would also possess a shoulder-to-shoulderlove. Shoulder-to-shoulder love is that love which persons share while working together to accomplish a task.[10]This could take the form of patriotism or parenting. This is logically different from face-to-face love because you can possess shoulder-to-shoulder love without possessing face-to-facelove. For example, as a patriot I can have this love for my fellow Canadians without even knowing these Canadians to experience face-to-face love. As such, it is argued that a being which possesses shoulder-to-shoulder love is greater than a being which does not.[11]
For shoulder-to-shoulder love to be possible there needs to be three things: a task, a person doing the task, and a person to accomplish the task with. In Trinitarian language, you need the Father (person), loving the Son (task), with the Holy Ghost (person to share the task with).[12]However, each of these persons would have to be perfect so as to accomplish self-love, face-to-face love, and shoulder-to-shoulderlove perfectly.[13]Therefore, a MGB would need to have a plurality of at least three perfect persons within His being.
At this point, if a MGB requires love, then it seems more reasonable that this being must look like something Trinitarian in nature rather than the concept of Tawid would allow. However, a question surfaces at this point: why should we only have three members of the Trinity and not four or more? Isn’t it the case that the more persons to share face-to-face and shoulder-to-shoulder love, the greater the overall love would be?
These are good questions, and one could infer this from our experiences. All things being equal, it seems reasonable to conclude that a larger family possesses greater overall love then a smaller family. However, we cannot infer this about a MGB simply because we are not maximally great as humans. Remember, I argued that the plurality of persons of the MGB must be perfect in order to achieve perfect love. Adding perfection onto perfection does not make something more perfect. Something is either perfect or it is not, and there are no degrees with perfection. While humans can increase and decrease in love, this is only possible since we do not exhibit perfect love. We can move closer or further from perfect love by degrees, but a MGB could not, because a MGB possesses perfect love.
While self-love, face-to-face love, and shoulder-to-shoulderlove differ in quality, and require successive persons to realize each form of love, adding a fourth person only seems to add quantity and doesn’t alter the quality or create another category of love. As argued above, adding only quantity doesn’t increase perfection, by definition. A fourth member, or more, seems redundant and redundancy is unnecessary for a MGB.  
As a heavy duty mechanic, I am well acquainted with redundant systems. For example, cars come equipped with emergency brakes. The primary function of an emergency brake is to provide a back-up brake in case your main brake system fails. In imperfect systems redundancies can be a good thing, but there is no failure in a MGB and as such redundancies are completely unneeded.  In fact, it could be argued that a MGB would not be needlessly complex.[14]Therefore, in order not to be redundant, a MGB would only exhibit three persons and not more.
It appears that the Trinity is a much more rational concept for a MGB than Tawid. However, it should come as no surprise that God, as He revealed Himself to us, would make more sense than faulty conceptions of Him. As this argument is new, there may be some further work needed to develop it properly, or there may be some fatal flaw within. However, my belief in the single God as a Trinity does not rest on this or any extra-biblical argument, but on the self-revelation of God.[15]Still, it can be useful to have an extra-biblical argument up your sleeve.


[1] Extra-biblical arguments for any doctrine will always fail to give certainty. Only the words in Scripture can give us this.
[3] Apparently, my argument sounds very similar to Richard Swinburne’s recent argument for the Trinity. While I have not read Swinburne’s work on the subject, a summary can be found here: http://trinities.org/blog/archives/182 (last accessed 04/07/2014).
[4] Love here is defined in the traditional manner as desiring and striving for the best for a being. While I think this is a deficient definition of love, I will use it this way since it enjoys acceptance in the philosophical world.
[5] Likewise, if this intuition is not accepted, then the whole argument fails.
[6] This is the Islamic understanding of the complete unity of God devoid of all distinctions. While this is an Islamic term, I am using it in a general way which includes all monotheistic beliefs outside of Christianity.
[7] A Tawidist could argue that God created creation for Him to love, but this makes God dependant on His creation to augment His status of MGB. I would argue that a MGB would be maximally great in and of Himself, not maximally great due to a relationship with creation.
[8] Face-to-face love is different than self-love. The highest form of face-to-face love is selfless (John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”) and by definition you cannot self-love selflessly. There is a qualitative difference between them.
[9] Don’t confuse my use of face-to-facewith physicality; I am using a physical image to point to a concept. God is spirit.
[10] A good example of this is how I view my wife. When I think of my wife as my wife, the love I feel is face-to-facelove. When I think of my wife as the mother of my children, the love is also just as powerful, yet it is different. It is shoulder-to-shoulder love.
[11] My bond with my wife is stronger due to our children’s existence. In fact, there have been times when our face-to-facehas been low but our shoulder-to-shoulderlove as parents was strong enough to hold our overall bond together.
[12] You can change the persons around any which way. The only difference is the way the persons show (and share) love due to the varying relationships within the Trinity.
[13] A possible counter might be that humans experience erotic love, so wouldn’t a MGB also need to participate in erotic love as well to be maximally great? I don’t think so. Erotic love seems designed to increase face-to-face love by increasing intimacy between persons. It also seems designed to create a strong shoulder-to-shoulder love by producing children which the couple must work together to raise. However, if a MGB already possesses perfect love, erotic love is not at all necessary.  
[14] It is a long held tradition within philosophy to accept a simpler explanation over a more complex one. Read this for some justifications for simplicity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam%27s_razor#Justifications (last accessed 04/07/2014).
[15] For a good biblical case for the Trinity, read: Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship, P & R Publishing, 2004.
  • Interesting post, Justin. Yes, very similar to Swinburne, who you can hear talking about this sort of argument here: http://trinities.org/blog/archives/6575

    I see a couple of issues with your argument. One is, who is the MGB here? It would seem that the Trinity per se isn’t doing any loving, of any of the kinds that you mention. The Father would be, and seemingly the other two Persons… but then, none is a uniquely best being, right? I wonder if you also hold to Swinburne’s three-self Trinity, which many worry is tritheism. How exactly does this show a tripersonal god to be better than a unipersonal god (like the Father)?

    Another problem is that while Father and Son are taught in the NT to cooperate, this is not true of the Spirit and either of them. Yes, the Father gives the Son the Spirit without measure, but that seems to mean just that the Father empowers Jesus to heal, prophesy, and such. In your terms, the NT nowhere teaches or portrays “the Holy Spirit” as a participant in shoulder to shoulder love.

    Finally, a being’s perfection is traditionally understood to be a function of its essential and intrinsic properties. If that is right, then being loving (character trait) would be a perfection, but actually loving (action, event involving another being too) would not increase a being’s perfection. If this is right, it would seem that a unipersonal god could well be perfectly loving, and indeed, as great as any being could be.

    I develop some of these points in this paper: http://trinities.org/dale/SinglePerfect.pdf

    Blog on & God bless,
    Dale