Dale Tuggy’s Trilemma – The Tip of the Iceberg



Jesus died.

Jesus was fully divine.

No fully divine being has ever died.


Can an orthodox, creedal affirming Christian (what I call a Creedonian) deny anyone of these? No. All three would have to be affirmed.


So what? What’s the problem? All this God stuff is a mystery anyway.


The problem is that we’re left with a contradiction. The problem is we have to explain how a fully divine being – who is essentially and necessarily immortal – can die. I suppose we can ignore the problem, but Scripture elevates knowing. It doesn’t favor blind allegiance.


We can, of course, avoid the contradiction by denying one of the statements. But then we would lose our Creedonian membership card.


So what are we to do?


We’ll start with the easy bit. The Bible is clear that God can’t die. God’s divine nature renders Him incapable of death. Call it a perk of the job.


How about the “Jesus is fully divine” bit? For sake of brevity, we’ll go with the customary interpretations of all the relevant Biblical passages. Give a nod to Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Karl Barth. Affirm this one without the benefit of argument, and move on.


So that leaves us with, “Jesus died”.


Now we have a problem. Based on what we just affirmed, we’re in a pickle. How do we get out?


There are only two ways, as far as I can see. Appeal to mystery, using all the intellectual vigor we can muster. Or, employ the language and concepts of the creeds.


We’ll avoid the mystery card and take the second approach. Doing so means we’ll have to make some adjustments to the trilemma. Specifically, we’ll have to rephrase the “Jesus died” statement to accommodate our Creedonian beliefs.


This changing of the statement means, obviously, that the trilemma as given will be ignored.


So the “right” statement might look something like this – the “One-God’s-eternal-modality-that-is-the-so-distinguished-hypostatic-act-Son’s-assumed-human-nature” died.


Now, we can talk about how the hypostatic union both unifies and distinguishes the “hypostatic-act-Son’s” divine and human nature. We can talk about how the concept of communicatio idiomatum demonstrates how the two natures of Christ communicate properties with each other.


We can talk about the difference between concrete and abstract natures. We can make “qua” distinctions between human and divine natures. We can talk about the difference between a person in the modern sense and a person in the “hypostatic-act-Son” sense.


Now, when I say “we”, I mean somebody else. I’ve been reading on these things for two years and I still can’t explain them.


So when the “we” have finished explaining all of this, does it solve our problem? I’ll leave that for you to discern.


But I will say this. Each road taken to answer this trilemma seems to always dead end with more questions. And eventually, like-mindedness between scholars evaporates, as we travel further into the weeds. Ultimately…the mystery card comes out.


So where does this leave us?


Personally, I think the doctrine of the Trinity is in crisis. I lay the blame at the feet of Trinitarian scholars.


The disconnect between a plain reading of the Bible, and the language and concepts employed by Trinitarian scholarship is massive. As lay folk, like me, are compelled to dive deeper and deeper into a Biblical search for the presence and coherent formulation of the Trinity, the disconnect becomes more and more obvious. Trinitarian language is not Biblical language.


Only the Trinitarian scholar has the chops to find a better way – to find better and more compelling language – to bridge the divide. But too many spend their energy on defending the continued use of this disconnected language. Too many opt for Latin over lucidity. Too many pride themselves on loyalty to Patristics over pastoring the flock.


No doubt, they think this is a false dilemma. They would see their loyalty as a form of pastoring the flock. But this misses the point.


Language and concepts like “communicatio idiomatum” are not inspired. They are not, in any Biblical sense, sanctifying. The truth they contain manifests not within a Biblical context, but within a specific historical setting.


It might help to illustrate my point. I’m not denying the engine. I’m pointing out that language like “carburetor” is becoming obsolete. Fuel injection is not heresy.


I’m suggesting it’s time to employ language and concepts that are more effective at communicating and defending the Doctrine of the Trinity at this time in Church history. This is…after all…what the Church Fathers did so well. They spoke into their historical setting with the tools their setting provided. To honor the work of the Church Fathers, is to do precisely what they did.


But sadly, in fact, when some new field does come along to try and do this very thing – like analytic theology – it’s ostracized by many of those in the systematics and patristics fields. It’s smugly labeled as being “novel”.


Dale Tuggy’s trilemma is the least of the Trinitarian’s concerns. It’s merely the tip of the iceberg.




4 thoughts on “Dale Tuggy’s Trilemma – The Tip of the Iceberg

  1. as someone with a huge interest in philosophy and theology, I’ve been following your tweets with interest as of late, since I’ve found your bible studies helpful and edifying and it is incredibly rare to find people who take both philosophy and God’s word seriously.

    I’m curious, given all the difficulties with Trinitarian theology, why do *you* personally choose to affirm the orthodox creeds. I’m quite “behind” with the historical literature, but as far as I know, the doctrine is not explicitly taught in scripture but “derived” from scripture and we see it in the early creeds of the church.

    Since I think you and I both have somewhat reformed leanings (small “r”), I was wondering if you could elaborate abit (in case you haven’t already) on why someone who affirms Sola Scriptura cannot be tempted to say “Scripture *might* teach trinitarian theology, but it’s something reasonable Christians can agree to disagree with” in the same way that someone might say the same about the issue of complementarianism etc.

    I have some fuzzy answers: perhaps the doctrine of the trinity has far more profound implications about our worldview than say, gender roles.

    I am just curious about what you think, since you obviously have huge pastoral concerns and you of all people would definitely have an easier life if you didn’t have to teach the Trinity to your flock!

    Thanks again for the bible studies!

    1. Hi Tan,
      Glad to read you have benefited from the blog!
      You wondered, “why someone who affirms Sola Scriptura cannot be tempted to say ‘Scripture might teach trinitarian theology, but it’s something reasonable Christians can agree to disagree with’”.
      So, its not news that the doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible. It’s only “obvious” when reading Scripture through the lens of the relevant creeds.
      Good scholars will admit this. Instead, they will argue that there’s Biblical pressure for the Trinity and this pressure is best explained with the doctrine of the Trinity.
      This is a great place to start. One is then left with the task of making their case – Scripturally and philosophically. It also means, one has to concede that there are other interpretations available (like Jesus as a divine agent) and treat them with respect.
      Hope that answers your question.

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