Dale Tuggy’s Trinitarian challenge – and a survey

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York. He is also a podcaster and an enthusiastic blogger. Tuggy’s intellectual odyssey is an interesting one. He grew up as an evangelical who never seriously questioned the doctrine of the Trinity (that there are three persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – in one God), until he went to graduate school. After examining various rival Christian interpretations of the Trinitarian doctrine, he came to believe that it was profoundly unbiblical, and now calls himself a Christian unitarian, who identifies the one God of the Bible (YHWH) with the Father (and not the Son or the Holy Spirit).

It is not my intention in this post to argue either for or against the doctrine of the Trinity, or to explain precisely what it means. Rather, what I intend to do is evaluate a specific argument put forward by Professor Tuggy, which is deliberately targeted at certain evangelical apologists who have recently maintained that Jesus is God tout simple – in other words, that Jesus simply is God Himself, and that Jesus and the one God are therefore numerically identical. It should be noted that most Trinitarians do not say this: for them, the term “God” designates a being (or as some would prefer to say, Being Itself), whereas the name “Jesus” refers to an incarnate Divine person (God the Son). These Trinitarians would therefore agree with the conclusion of Tuggy’s argument, which is that Jesus is not divine in the same way that the one God is.

What I’m going to argue today, however, is that the “shock value” of Professor Tuggy’s argument – especially its conclusion that “Jesus is not a god” – stems from its imprecise wording, and that when its premises are reworded in a more rigorous fashion, the argument loses its sting. The modest conclusion of my reformulation of Tuggy’s argument is simply that Jesus is not a Divine being – and that’s all.

Tuggy’s argument

Professor Tuggy’s argument, which he propounded in a podcast last year, and revisited more recently, runs as follows (the bracketed comments are my paraphrases of Tuggy’s more detailed explanations – VJT):

1. God and Jesus differ.
[Proof: God and Jesus have different properties. For example, God is triune, but Jesus is not triune. God sent his only Son, whereas Jesus did not send his Son.]

2. Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical).
[Proof: This is a version of the indiscernibility of identicals. What it says is that single thing can’t (at one time) be and not be a certain way. For instance, one and the same thing cannot simultaneously be both triune and not triune.]

3. Therefore, God and Jesus are two (not numerically identical). (This follows from 1 and 2.)

4. For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e. if x and y are numerically identical).
[Proof: In general, if x and y are the same F, this just means: Fx & Fy & x=y. Hence if x and y are the same god, then x is a god and y is a god and x is numerically identical to y.]

5. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same god. (This follows from 3 and 4.)

6. There is only one god.
[Proof: Anyone who accepts the monotheistic Biblical concept of God – as Trinitarians profess to do – must agree that YHWH is the only true god.]

7. Therefore, either God is not a god, or Jesus is not a god. (This follows from 5 and 6.)

8. God is a god.
[Proof: since God (Yahweh) is the only god, it follows that he is a god.]

9. Therefore, Jesus is not a god. (This follows from 7 and 8.)

My comments on Tuggy’s argument

Although I accept Professor Tuggy’s conclusion (in the sense which I explained above), there are several things which I don’t really like about the way in which he formulates his argument. I’ll focus on five premises: 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8.

1. God and Jesus differ.

I have to say that I find this statement unacceptably vague. What on earth does it mean? In predicate calculus, one cannot say that a and b differ, without specifying in advance the domain they both belong to. For instance, Tom Hanks and Arnold Schwarzenegger differ as men. Chalk and cheese differ as materials. Justice and mercy differ as virtues. Plus and minus differ as mathematical operators. So if God and Jesus differ, what do they differ as? The only safe answer which I think Professor Tuggy could give at this stage is that they differ as beings.

The justification Tuggy offers for his claim is that some properties which apply to God do not apply to Jesus, and vice versa. But once again, we need to tread carefully. To use a well-worn example, the evening star and the morning star have different properties: the former is called Hesperus in Greek mythology, while the latter is called Phosphorus. However, it does not follow that Hesperus and Phosphorus differ as beings, since “being called Hesperus” is not an intrinsic property of the evening star, and neither is “being called Phosphorus” an intrinsic property of the morning star. [UPDATE: By contrast, size, color and mass are some examples of intrinsic properties – and it turns out that Hesperus and Phosphorus share these properties. Readers with a background in philosophy will of course be aware that the German philosopher Gottlob Frege originally used the example of ‘Hesperus’ and ‘Phosphorus’ to distinguish between sense and reference, but that need not concern us here – VJT.] So what Tuggy needs to say is that God and Jesus differ in their intrinsic properties. Arguably, “being triune” is an intrinsic property, so Tuggy’s first premise can be reformulated as follows:

1. God and Jesus are beings whose intrinsic properties differ.
[Proof: there are some intrinsic properties which apply to God but not to Jesus.]

When the premise is expressed this way, though, it becomes immediately apparent that most Trinitarians would reject it, as they would never call Jesus a Divine being, but a Divine person. There are, however, some Evangelical Trinitarians who actually do say that the terms “God” and “Jesus” are identical in meaning. It is these people that Tuggy is taking issue with, in his argument.

2. Things which differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical).

Once again, the problem I have with this statement is that it omits mention of any common domain, to which the things being compared belong. Things which don’t share a common domain should not be called “different,” but rather, categorically distinct. One does not say that the number 9 and a piece of gold are different, because that understates the vast metaphysical gulf dividing them: the former belongs to the category of numbers, while the latter belongs to the category of metals (or more generally, elements, or even raw materials). There is nothing that these categories have in common.

Suppose we replace the term “things” in Tuggy’s second premise with “beings,” and sharpen the definition of “differ,” as in my revised formulation of premise 1. Then we get:

2. Beings whose intrinsic properties differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical).
[Proof: one and the same being cannot simultaneously be both triune and not triune.]

No Trinitarian could coherently deny that one and the same being cannot simultaneously be both triune and not triune. Nor, I imagine, would any Trinitarian wish to do so. So basically, there’s nothing objectionable about this premise.

Let us now proceed to Tuggy’s fourth premise:

4. For any x and y, x and y are the same god only if x and y are not two (i.e. if x and y are numerically identical).

Logically, the claim that if x and y are the same F, this just means: Fx & Fy & x=y. However, in this case, “the same F” specifically means: “the same god.” What is meant by a small-g god? Tuggy only tells us that “god” is used as a sortal term – in other words, it refers to a being of a particular kind (e.g. “human” as opposed to “engineer”). So what I presume he means here is that “a god” (small g) means “a Divine being,” or a being with the general properties traditionally ascribed to God in the Bible: being uncreated, almighty, all-knowing, all-merciful and all-just, without limits, and so on.

So on my revised formulation, premise 4 now reads as follows:

4. For any x and y, x and y are the same Divine being only if x and y are the same being.

Stated this way, the premise is utterly uncontroversial. (I am of course aware that some classical theists would object to describing God as “a Divine being,” but even these theists would happily agree that God the Father and God the Son are “of one being” (in Greek, homoousios) which implies that they are the same being.)

I now turn to premise 6:

6. There is only one god.

This would no doubt strike many Christians as disconcerting, since what the Nicene Creed proclaims is: “I believe in one God” (big-G). “Why the small g?” they would ask. Again, we can make sense of this is we rephrase it as follows:

6. There is only one Divine being.

The term “Divine being” has been defined above, so I won’t rehash it here.

Finally, we come to premise 8:

8. God is a god.

This assertion would look downright weird to most Christians. Tuggy justifies it by arguing that since God (YHWH) is the only god, it follows that he is a god. Once again, we can render the premise less awkward by rewording it as follows:

8. God is a Divine being.

This still sounds a little funny to Christian ears. However, if we grant God is the one and only Being who is without limits of any kind, then we must also acknowledge that God is a Being who is without limits of any kind.

The revised formulation of Tuggy’s argument

So, now that I’ve revised Professor Tuggy’s argument, how does it read?

1. God and Jesus are beings whose intrinsic properties differ.
[Proof: there are some intrinsic properties which apply to God but not to Jesus.]

2. Beings whose intrinsic properties differ are two (i.e. are not numerically identical).

3. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same being.

4. For any x and y, x and y are the same Divine being only if x and y are the same being.

5. Therefore, God and Jesus are not the same Divine being. (3,4)

6. There is only one Divine being.

7. Therefore, either God is not a Divine being, or Jesus is not a Divine being. (5, 6)

8. God is a Divine being.

9. Therefore, Jesus is not a Divine being. (7,8)

Premise 9 should raise no eyebrows: the reason why Jesus is not a Divine being is that in standard Trinitarian theology, Jesus is not “a being” in the first place, but rather, a person within the Divine being. Premise 1 of Tuggy’s revised argument makes this mistaken assertion, too, when it declares that God and Jesus are beings.

Conclusion

Professor Tuggy’s argument works successfully if it is viewed as a reductio ad absurdum of a certain kind of Trinitarian thinking that has recently become common in Evangelical circles, in which the terms “God” and “Jesus” are simply equated. Such an approach to the Trinity is, however, extremely unsophisticated, and Tuggy himself readily admits that orthodox Trinitarians could accept the conclusion of his argument.

Let me reiterate that I make no claim to have rendered the doctrine of the Trinity intelligible, and I can imagine that there are many skeptical readers who would regard it as pure gobbledygook.

Before I sign off, I’d like to comment on an anti-Trinitarian argument made in Professor Tuggy’s podcast:

If x is the God of y, then x can’t be y.

In John 17, Jesus prays to the Father as his God, and in John 20:17, he even calls the Father “my God and your God,” when speaking to Mary Magdalene. Does it follow that Jesus is not God? No. All that follows is that if the Father is the God of Jesus, then the Father can’t be Jesus. But no Trinitarian would want to claim that the Father is Jesus, for if that were the case, then there would be no Trinity in the first place. What the Trinitarian would still claim, however, is that the Father is the same being as Jesus, although the Father and the Son are different persons of the one God.

For Tuggy’s anti-Trinitarian argument to work, he would require a stronger premise, which he has not argued for:

If x is the God of y, then x can’t be the same being as y.

Appendix: A mini-survey for Christians

Christian readers may be interested in completing the following short questionnaire on their views about the Trinity. I’d be interested to see the results.

1. Do you think of God as having one mind or three minds?

2. Do you think of God as being one agent or three agents?

3. Do you think of God as one “I” or three “I’s”?

4. Do you think of God as one spirit or three spirits?

5. Do you believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, in some form?

Over to you.

14 thoughts on “Dale Tuggy’s Trinitarian challenge – and a survey”

  1. Joe FelsensteinJoe Felsenstein

    The famous mathematician G. H. Hardy once remarked that if you start from inconsistent axioms, you can prove any proposition. “Wait a minute,” said his friend, “Do you mean that if we start with the proposition that 2+2=5 that you can prove that McTaggart is the Pope?” “Of course,” said Hardy. “2+2=5 but we also know that 2+2=4. So 5=4. Now subtract 3 from both sides and we have that 2=1. Now McTaggart and the Pope are two, therefore McTaggart and the Pope are one!”

  2. John HarshmanJohn Harshman

    I tried to respond to this argument while dancing on the head of a pin, but the angels kept bumping into me and messing up my typing.

  3. phoodoo

    The modest conclusion of my reformulation of Tuggy’s argument is simply that Jesus is not a Divine being – and that’s all.

    Don’t be so modest! What a thinker you are!

  4. Flint

    I recall from somewhere that according to Paul, some spirit descended from 7th heaven all the way down to first heaven (between the highest clouds and the moon), took on a human body, gave it the human name Jesus, got it offed, therefore became the messiah, after which he returned to 7th heaven. In Paul’s cosmology, the lowest heaven was the “real world”, and where we live is a very imperfect copy.

    What I’m not clear on (I don’t know if Paul was), is whether ALL the inhabitants of 7th (highest level of) heaven are divine, or whether some are more divine than others. Certainly all of them are at least highly exalted.

  5. petrushka

    It kind of cute watching grownups play. As long as they’re quiet and don’t wander into the street.

  6. waltowalto

    IMHO, Tuggy’s argument is clearly valid as is, and the alterations added in the OP add nothing at all–except a misstatement of the de dicto/de re distinction in the discussion of ‘intrinsic properties.

    Of course, as Joe says above, proofs of amazing things–even valid ones–are easy when one allows oneself premises like ‘There is exactly one divine being.’

    So, in sum, any claim that Tuggy’s argument is SOUND is just hot air, but that it’s valid is pretty basic predicate logic.

  7. petrushka

    Oneness arguments aren’t very interesting to me. I hate bringing in quantum physics, but we should at least be aware that there are objects studied by physics that have ambiguous attributes and locations.

    If physics can accommodate such apparent paradoxes, why can’t magic?

  8. Erik

    So if God and Jesus differ, what do they differ as? The only safe answer which I think Professor Tuggy could give at this stage is that they differ as beings.

    Why not “persons” instead of “beings”? This would be both safe and orthodox, seems to me, some sort of Trinitarian doctrine would perhaps follow somehow and Mr. Tuggy would still be salvageable.

  9. vjtorley Post author

    Erik,

    If Professor Tuggy maintained that God and Jesus differ as persons, then he’d be guilty of begging the question against Trinitarians, by assuming at the outset that God is just one person. That would run counter to his stated aim.

  10. vjtorley Post author

    walto,

    The de dicto / de re distinction has been explained in various ways by different philosophers: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/prop-attitude-reports/dere.html

    In any case, the distinction I was appealing to in the OP was a distinction between intrinsic (or natural) properties and extrinsic (non-natural) properties. My point was simply that if entity A and entity B differ only in their extrinsic properties, then we cannot conclude that they’re different beings. They may or may not be. Readers can find out more about this distinction here:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambridge_change

    It was not my intention to deny the validity of Professor Tuggy’s argument, but I stand by my statement that key premises of the argument – e.g. “God and Jesus differ,” “There is only one god” (small g) and “God is a god” – are unacceptably vague. Their meaning needs to be clarified.

    Cheers.

  11. waltowalto

    Vince, your usages here are very heterodoxical. Natural and non-natural properties are generally thought to be what G.E. Moore was talking about in his Principia. And again, intrinsic and extrinsic properties (as those are generally understood) have nothing whatever to with the morning star/evening star story. So I do think you mostly just muddied the waters in your OP, and now muddy them even more by talking about “natural properties” in this response.

    As to those two premises, Tuggy is clearly using “God” and “Jesus” as proper names and (small g) “god” as a general noun or sortal term. I don’t find any of that to be particularly vague, and it’s not that I’m particularly special: maybe he’s just assuming some familiarity with the literature on the causal theory of names, or rigid designation, or meaning and necessity. Kripke, Donnellan, Plantinga, Evans, Putnam–all that stuff is from the mid-1970s, now about 40 years old, and pretty mainstream. Anyhow, I don’t find it surprising that Tuggy assumed some familiarity with it.

  12. brucefast

    Sorry, I haven’t done a good job of reading the dialog thread. However, Dale Tuggy’s position is just childish.
    Consider the Shima, the declaration of “one God”: Deuteronomy 6:4-5 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one [H259] Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”
    Says there is one God, right? Well, kinda. If you follow strong’s concordance on “one”, strong’s number [H259], you also find this:
    Genesis 2:24
    Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one [H259] flesh. However, my wife and I are not one and the same. Jesus refers to himself as “son”, he uses family modeling to describe his relationship to the Father, the Spirit and to the group together referred to as Yahweh, or Jehovah.

    I, therefore, present the analogy of a board of directors of a company. We refer to the board in the singular. “The board decided” etc. A good functioning board is unified — one. Further, within the board we see a hierarchy. There is a chairman of the board. Let Dale Tuggy use his same logic to discuss a statement made by one member of a board on behalf of the board. That member of the board isn’t the whole board, but he is of the board.

    The trinity is simple. No need to declare it some great mystery. Jehovah is unified – Father (CEO) Son and Spirit.

  13. vjtorley Post author

    Hi Walto,

    I will agree that my morning star vs. evening star example (which was originally developed to explicate a distinction between sense and reference) could have been better chosen, for the purposes of illustrating my point.

    The reason why I didn’t appeal to de re vs. de dicto was that this distinction is applied to sentences, beliefs or attributions, whereas Tuggy’s argument was not about sentences but about things. That was why I argued that in order to show that two things are distinct, you need to show that they have differing intrinsic properties.

    More importantly, you can’t just say that God and Jesus differ (as Tuggy does in his first premise) without first answering the question: “Differ as what?” In other words, you need to specify the domain that they both belong to.

    You write that “Tuggy is clearly using ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ as proper names and (small g) ‘god’ as a general noun.” I agree. My point was that his small-g term “god” was not very clearly defined. Most of the Christian apologists with whom Tuggy is in dialogue are not trained philosophers, so if Tuggy wants to use a sortal term like that, he should be careful to say exactly what he means by it, or these apologists will be at a loss when responding to his argument. To Christian ears, “God is a god” sounds very strange. “God is a Divine being” sounds a lot less strange. That was all I wanted to say.

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