Trinitarian Distinctions

I am currently reading through Brannon Ellis, Calvin, Classical Trinitarianism, and the Aseity of the Son. Ellis’s thesis is, in part, that Calvin consistently defended the aseity of the Son by maintaining a distinction between two modes of predication relative to the triunity of God. The two ways of speaking, as noted throughout the text, are: essentially (as to essence) and relatively (as to personal distinctions). But Ellis equivocates, sometimes referring to a distinction between essential and personal modes, instead of essential and relative. My thought is that this equivocation invites problems, since, as it seems to me, a distinction between essential and personal predicates is unclear and difficult to maintain.

We might suppose that replacing relative with personal (as to person) allows us to name a rather more intuitive and more concrete distinction: essential oneness and personal threeness, and essential and personal ways of speaking about God. Relative to essence, in distinction from person, we affirm that there is one undivided, simple essence. But in order to respect the distinction between essential and personal language, we may either say only this, affirming the simple and numerical unity of the divine essence (little by way of tri-, much by way of -une), or we must affirm that there are also three essences, since something as to essence must be said relative to persons. But to affirm one essence and three essences is quite different from affirming that there is one essence that subsists in three hypostases or persons, since even if those persons possess the essence of themselves (even if they are a se, that is), they possess the one self-identical and undivided essence, not each one a unique essence. Nor is the one essence a fourth divine aseity, which is the complementary implication.

In terms of this essential/personal distinction, parallel oddities occur on the personal side. We affirm that there are three persons, and even that the persons are mutually identifying. That is, they are constituted by and known by their relations (generation and procession). A notion of a se personhood(s) is unintelligible. (Even the Father is the Father by virtue of being the Father of the Son.) But what may we say of personhood in terms of the unity of the Godhead? It is not within the traditional lexicon – or with only very few exceptions – to  predicate one person and three persons. The notion of person as a subsisting relation itself precludes our speaking of a single person: what relationship would constitute this person? To whom would it relate? Who is the one person? And there is additional ambiguity in the sense that of persons it is on all accounts acceptable to predicate both in terms of oneness and in terms of threeness, or both in terms of unity and trinity. Speaking of the second person, we say that the Son is of the Father and that the Son is of the same essence as the Father. On both counts then, contrasting an essential mode of predication with a personal mode is problematic.

The two ways of speaking must be essentially and relatively. And to speak of the essence is to speak non-relatively, which is to say, where the essence is, it is of itself. And to speak relatively is to speak non-essentially: relations are not constitutive of the essence (nor is the essence possessed by virtue of relation, as Calvin contends), since this would be to say that deity itself is derived. Ellis wishes to say with Calvin that the three persons are “together,” he says, “the one self-existent God” (63).

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2 Comments on “Trinitarian Distinctions”

  1. Can you give a few examples of where he equivocates on “relative” and “personal”? I didn’t catch that when I read it the first time.

  2. Nate Shannon says:

    Seems to me he uses them interchangeably throughout the text. There is an interesting passage from the bottom of 171 to the top of 172 in which he seems, in my view, to (1) indirectly point out the value of this distinction, and then (2) immediately after, swap relative/essential for personal/essential. It probably doesn’t matter all that much, but it gave me an angle on some questions I was thinking about.

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