Trinitarian Ontology
July 29, 2019

In a 2014 essay in Theological Research, Giulio Maspero compares the “ontology of the First Principle” in classical Greek metaphysics and in Trinitarian theology. Both traditions link “being” with life, but Trinitarian theology deepens the connection by making “relation” essential to the “First Principle” in a way that ultimately produces something new, a Trinitarian ontology.

In his late work, Plato says that “generation and the tendency toward fullness of life are included in the structure of being in all its gradations.” He initially conceives Forms in a static fashion, but in The Laws he attributes movement, life, soul, and intelligence to them.

Aristotle builds on this by identifying God with thought that is life. As Aristotle himself puts it, “the actuality of thought is life, and God is that actuality. . . . God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God.” For Aristotle, human contemplation ascends toward the thought that is divine life.

In Aristotle, though, God “is pure act and therefore can desire nothing and cannot relate to anything.” Since Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover is absolute, he’s not in contact with or concerned about individuals beings. Aristotle’s God is desired, but doesn’t desire.

Trinitarian theology “extends” classical metaphysics. God isn’t being or essence only; God is “person.” Greek metaphysics “always relegated the who to the accidental and phenomenal level.” Not Christian theology; the personal who is as fundamental as the metaphysical what. The biblical God isn’t the endpoint of a reflection on the cosmic, not the “necessary foundation” of physical reality. God freely creates, is always present to and in relation to creatures, ultimately in the incarnation. We can know Him only if He shows Himself. And He does. God isn’t self-regarding, Thought thinking Thought. He knows, thinks of, and loves all things that He makes, and therefore desires our company.

While making God utterly present, Trinitarian theology also makes true transcendence possible. The early Trinitarian debates were precisely about clarifying the Creator-creature distinction. Classical metaphysics conceived a series of mediators between the ultimate reality and the earthly realm. Trinitarian theology eliminates that ladder of beings. As Maspero puts it, “Between God and the world opened an infinite gap, which could not be overcome by any degree of ontological intermediary. This allowed for the expression of the creative and redemptive act in terms of love and freedom, placing the divine will in the first order and recognizing its ontological density.”

The internal life of the Triune God is one of reciprocal gift and eternal love: “the Father does not generate the Son merely giving him some thing, but gives him all of Himself. For this the Son is one with the Father. The Father, then, generates the Son in the total gift of that full and eternal Life that is the very being of God.” Because the “Son is the perfect image of the Father precisely in the re-giving of Himself to the Father, in such a way that the Father is Father in the Son and the Son is Son in the Father in their mutual relation of pure, reciprocal, and absolute gift.”

Thus, even when the Bible and Trinitarian theology use the same language as classical metaphysics, the language is transformed: “while the Greek logos is identified precisely with the necessary causal link that connects the different levels of that single ontological scale intended to be between God and the world, the Christian Logos is the gift of the Father – the free and personal Word in the New Testament is indeed the Word, the Person of the eternal Son.”

Arians operated by the old classical metaphysics. Eunomius the Arian claims that any being “accompanied by prepositions” is a “relative being” and thus metaphysically inferior. A God who has a Word “with” Him can’t be absolute; the Son cannot be absolute if He is “in” the Father, nor can the Father be absolute if He is “in” the Son. That “in” shows they’re relative to one another. Gregory of Nyssa grasped the metaphysical import of these Johannine claims about God: If the Word is “toward” the Father and Father and Son are “in” one another, then relation has been brought into the “First Principle.” Relation is the Absolute’s mode of life.

The upshot of all this shifts is that the “life” of the First Principle is reconceived as a life of love, desire, will, not merely thought. God is alive; God is triune. For Christian theology, these two statements are identical: God is the living God because He is triune.

This essay was first published in The Theopolitan, my weekly newsletter available to those who donate $50 or more a month to Theopolis. To receive the newsletter, donate here.

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