According to nominalism, “being” – that which is common or universal in any given category – is no more than a “name,” a concept or term. Accordingly, the doctrine of the Trinity in this philosophy leads to tritheism. Excessive realism, on the other hand, associates the word “essence” with some subsistent thing that stands behind or above the person and so leads to tetratheism or Seballianism. – Herman Bavinck (God and Creation 2004, 299)
As I mentioned in my introductory post, I have embarked on a project to assess and critique the Trinitarian and Christological theology of William Lane Craig. The errors, in my opinion, are grave enough to render him a teacher that Reformed Christians should not emulate, even in part.
I have already received some feedback regarding my approach that I want to briefly address. As I noted previously, I am restricting myself to Dr. Craig’s popular sources. Primarily, Dr. Craig’s two podcasts, the articles available on his website, and his book Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (which he co-authored with JP Moreland). Some have commented that I should spend time approaching and digesting his academic work as well. I don’t disagree with them, but I am sticking with the popular sources for two primary reasons.
First, Dr. Craig has positioned himself as an academic who also provides content for popular audiences. Although his popular audiences are probably more sophisticated than average popular readers, it seems unlikely that Dr. Craig expects everyone reading his articles to also read his academic and technical work. My ultimate critique, spoiler alert, is that he is presenting an errant theology to popular audiences that do not have the theological or philosophical acumen to understand where his errors lay. As such, I seek to demonstrate that within his popular presentation there are substantial errors.
Secondly, I’m not a philosopher. Dr. Craig is a high level, academic philosopher. I am not qualified or competent to engage in a full-scale critique of his academic work. Beyond that, I simply do not have the time, money, or desire, to engage in the level of research that would require. The popular sources I am working with are the ones that I have been engaging with for the better part of seven years and am already conversant with. So, while it is true that I am engaging in research, I am researching sources and content that I have already spent time working with in the past.
With that out of the way, I want to discuss a major component of Dr. Craig’s articulation, and one that I think drives most mistakes that he runs into further up in the system.
As Herman Bavinck observes in the quote I have chosen as a theme for this study, there are two broad philosophical systems in the realm of metaphysics. It would take another post, but the classical position which undergirds historic Nicene Trinitarianism (and Chalcedonian Christology) is called Realism. This position, at least as the Cappadocian and other Pro-Nicene Fathers held it, argues that reality exists in two categories. There are ousiai which are the fundamental realities which unify different kinds of things. For example, all humans share a common type of ousia which explains the common features of all humans. This is related to, although modified by the Church, classic Platonic philosophy with its concept of the Ideal Forms. The second category is that of hypostases which are the individual instances of a given genre of ousia. So while both Bavinck and Berkhof have the same kind of ousia, they are distinct hypostases of that nature. There are some considerations to be had regarding Trinitarianism and how this functions that will come in a later post.
The contrasting position is called Nominalism which argues that these abstract or metaphysical universals do not exist. There are no fundamental category below individual instances. We name (hence the term nominalism) hypostases by observing their attributes. These attributes are what place a given hypostasis in a given category.
Now, Dr. Craig does not prefer the term nominalism and instead prefers to refer to his position as anti-realism. However, it does not appear that this choice of terms is a result of any philosophical objections or differences, but because of the negative association the term nominalism has in other sectors. (Craig 2015)
As I mentioned earlier, Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology is built upon a foundation of metaphysical realism (also sometimes called Substance Metaphysics). It would take a much broader study, but the Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers developed their theology not because of a philosophical commitment to Platonism or Neoplatonism (although the influence of those systems was used providentially by God to bring about the end result). Instead, they saw the language of Scripture to be most amenable to these concepts. Phrases like “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”, (Heb 1:3a, ESV) “though he was in the form of God”, (Phil 2:6b, ESV) or “you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4b, ESV) drove them to understand that the substance metaphysics of Plato was (broadly speaking) also the metaphysics of the Scriptures. Dr. Craig rejects this foundational aspect of classical Trinitarianism and Christology. There is no divine nature, there is no human nature. There are only attributes and the persons who have them.
This leads Dr. Craig, through a series of complicated mistakes that I will not recount here, to conclude that “The Trinity is the sole instance of the divine nature, and therefore there is but one God.” (Moreland and Craig 2003) What Dr. Craig seems to mean by this is that the only thing in all of existence that has all the requisite attributes to be identified as God is the Trinity qua Trinity. How he accounts for the distinct persons properly being called God (or described as divine) will come in a later post.
In the coming weeks, I will explain how this radically distorts Dr. Craig’s ideas about the unity of the Trinity, the distinction between Christ’s two natures, and how a series of over-corrections lead Dr. Craig down a theological path that we must not follow. But for now, I think it suffices to say that the error of nominalism, does exactly as Bavinck suggests… it leads Dr. Craig to a kind of tritheism which destroys the unity of the divine persons. That is the subject to which we will turn next week.
- Bavinck, Herman. God and Creation. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Vol. 2. 4 vols. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004.
- Craig, William Lane. Nominalism and Natural Law. 08 30, 2015. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/nominalism-and-natural-law (accessed 02 25, 2017).
- Horton, Michael. The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.
- Chap. 29 in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, by JP Moreland, & William Lane Craig. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003.
- Shedd, William GT. Dogmatic Theology. 3rd. Edited by Alan Gomes. Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003.
 “God is one in respect to essence, denoted by the Greek terms ousia, physis, and to on; the Latin terms essentia, substantia, natura, ens, and res; and the English terms essence, substance, nature, and being.” (Shedd 2003, 231)
 “The Greek trinitarians denominated a divine person hypostasis, to hypokeimenon, or prosōpon. […] The Latin trinitarians employed the word persona. Sometimes substantia was employed. […] The English terms are hypostasis, subsistence, distinction, person, relation, and mode.” (Shedd 2003, 234)
 There is some discussion here as to whether ὑπόστασις hupóstasis is properly understood in context as a reference to person or nature, but for our purposes that discussion is not relevant. See Horton 2011, 278-287, Shedd 2003, 230-234, or Bavinck 2004, 296-304 for more on the linguistic development of these terms.