William Lane Craig – Partialism (3)

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)

In the second episode of Dr. Craig’s first Defenders class, he makes a strong claim about the importance of having right Christian doctrine. He says “Christ cannot be separated from truths about Christ. Someone may claim to say, ‘Yes, I believe in Jesus. Oh, Jesus is Lord!’ He may have a wonderful spiritual experience of Jesus. But if they don’t have right doctrine, that experience is spurious. The Scripture says that you cannot separate Christ from the fundamental truths about Christ.” (Craig, Introduction to Christian Doctrine 2007)  Did you catch that? A person may have some kind of experience of Jesus, but if that experience is combined with false doctrine, the experience is spurious.

Spurious is a word that is not commonly used, so I think it bears defining:

Outwardly similar or corresponding to something without having its genuine qualities (Merriam-Webster 2017)

Something that is spurious appears to be genuine but is in fact not. So what Dr. Craig is saying here is that even if a person appears to have genuine Christian faith, even if their own subjective experience tells them that they are a Christian, that if their doctrine is not correct that their experience is not genuine. This is important, as one of the primary reactions I get when I speak critically of Dr. Craig is to point to his character and service as evidence that my critique is unjustified. However, Dr. Craig himself points out that a person’s doctrine, while not everything, potentially invalidates their experience and the outward appearances of Christianity.

In the last post, we discussed how Dr. Craig’s self-described anti-realism flows contrary to the metaphysical assumptions which undergird the Church’s historical articulation of the doctrines of the Trinity (Nicaea 325 and Constantinople 381) and the Hypostatic Union (Chalcedon 451). This lead him to argue that the Trinity itself is the only “instance of the Divine Nature.” (Moreland and Craig 2003) I argued that this leads Dr. Craig to the error of Tritheism. Specifically, he commits a variant of this error called Partialism.

Historically, what has served to unify the three persons of the Trinity such that they are a single God rather than three Gods or gods, is that they share a single and simple divine nature. This can unify the three persons not because they are each a part of that divine nature, as Dr. Craig ultimately argues. Rather, it unifies them because they each are full expressions of that divine nature. Because they share this single and simple divine nature, they mutually indwell each other in what we call perichoresis. As we have seen, Dr. Craig denies that such a single and simple nature exists at all. This causes him to render each person of the Trinity to be simply a part or portion of the divine nature.

After making the stunning claim that no one person of the Trinity is the fullness of divinity, and may only be described as divine, he goes on to ask the following question:

So if the persons of the Trinity are not divine in virtue of being instances of the divine nature, in virtue of what are they divine? (Moreland and Craig 2003)

Craig answers the question with an analogy. The analogy is that even though a Cat’s skeleton is not the entirety of an instance of the Cat nature, only the whole Cat is, it is nevertheless a feline skeleton. While he makes it clear that he is speaking analogically and not univocally, he goes on to say

This suggests that we could think of the persons of the Trinity as divine because they are parts of the Trinity, that is, parts of God. (Moreland and Craig 2003)

So it is not a matter of drawing an implication from his work when I say that Craig argues that each person of the Trinity is only a part of God and not the fullness of deity. Although he couches this in the language of “suggesting,” he is advocating this model. He goes on to flesh out some more of the implications, which he believes are benefits.

Far from downgrading the divinity of the persons, such an account can be very illuminating of their contribution to the divine nature. For parts can possess properties which the whole does not, and the whole can have a property because some part has it. (Moreland and Craig 2003)

So not only are the persons not the fullness of deity, they can actually possess individual properties which the whole —and presumably the other persons— do not. He concludes this section by saying, “the point is that if we think of the divinity of the persons in terms of a part/whole relation to the Trinity that God is, then their deity seems in no way diminished because they are not instances of the divine nature.” (Moreland and Craig 2003)

We will discuss next week how Dr. Craig’s way of grounding the unity causes problems, but at this point, I think it is sufficient to note a few things.

  • No one person of the Trinity, even the Father, is the fullness of the divine nature. They are, at most, parts of the divine nature.
  • Each person may possess properties that the whole does not, and the whole may possess properties that no individual person has.
  • The fundamental unity which the persons share is not because of a shared single and simple nature, but because they exist in a relationship in virtue of being parts in a common whole.

Although Dr. Craig claims that his view has precedent in the early Church, he is mistaken.[1] The idea that Son or Spirit is not the fullness of deity is certainly a view that was prominent among early Christian heretics, the idea that the Father is not is essentially unheard of. In some ways, Craig’s view here bears more in common with Mormonism than it does with orthodox Christianity. For Dr. Craig, the rejection of a concrete actual nature which is common among the three, and of which each is a complete instantiation of, has led him to deny fundamental Christian truths. Namely, that the Father is the fullness of deity, that the Son is the fullness of deity, and that the Holy Spirit is the fullness of deity. In addition, rather than ground the unity of the Trinity in the fact that each person is the fullness of the divine nature, and shares that fullness completely with the other two… he has reduced —despite his claims to the contrary— each person to the status of incomplete deity and rendered their unity incomplete. Their unity is accidental to their person, and we could conceive of the Father without the Son. That is the result of Partialism, that a part is a self-contained.

My assessment is that Dr. Craig realizes these potential pitfalls, and in his attempt to correct for them he has committed a dual error. When considering the persons distinctly, he has committed the tritheistic error of Partialism and rendered each person to be less than God. However, when considering the Triune God, he has treated the Trinity as a subsistent thing and thus expressed a flavor of Unitarianism. Attempting to flee the ditch on the Tritheism side of the road, he has overcorrected and flung himself into the ditch of Unitarianism.

To that subject, we will turn next week.



[1] Dr. Craig cites Hillary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, 7.2 as saying “Each divine person is in the Unity, yet no person is the one God.” However, this quote comes in a section where Hillary affirms both that the Son is the fullness of the divine nature, and that the Father is the fullness of the divine nature. Hillary here is arguing against a group of adoptionists who claim that the Son is God because of adoption, “though neither Godhead nor Sonship be His by nature.” His opponents had claimed that the Son did not possess the fullness of the divine nature. However, his response is not to argue that the Son is a part of the divine nature or a part of the Trinity, but to reference the argument in the previous book which unequivocally proved that the Father and Son have the same nature. His thesis in book 6 is “I must show from them that true God, the Son of God, is not of a different, an alien nature from that of the Father, but possesses the same Divinity while having a distinct existence through a true birth.” (On the Trinity, 6.8) Which he claims, in the very section Dr. Craig cites, he has succeeded in proving. Furthermore, Dr. Craig also references On the Trinity 7.32 in support of his argument, even though Hillary directly contradicts what Dr. Craig has argued regarding perichoresis and mutual indwelling. It is unclear to me at this point what the quoted statement means, but whatever it means… Hillary is certainly not saying that the Father, Son, or Spirit are not each the fullness of the divine nature.

2 thoughts on “William Lane Craig – Partialism (3)

  1. I’ve been following this series with some interest. I read the section on the Trinity from the Philosophical Foundations book very early in my reading theology and philosophy career. It struck me as quite strange but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Now reading the same passage quoted here, I’m blown away. The persons as part of the Trinity? If I didn’t know you personally I wouldn’t take your word for that being what it says there. Astonishing.

Comments are closed.