Dale Tuggy and the Biblical Basis of the Trinity, Part 2: Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Incoherent?

In Part 1, I responded to Unitarian philosopher Dale Tuggy’s claim in a recent conference address that my biblical argument for the doctrine of the Trinity omitted essential elements of the doctrine. Here I will respond to his objection that my statement of the doctrine is incoherent. In Part VII of my outline study “The Biblical Basis of the Doctrine of the Trinity,” I concluded by reviewing the propositions that constitute the essential elements of the doctrine, including these four:

  1. The Father is God (see Part III).
  2. The Son is God (see Part IV).
  3. The Holy Spirit is God (see Part V).
  4. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons, i.e., they are not each other, nor are they impersonal; they relate to one another personally (see Part VI).

As he has been doing with Trinitarian theology in general for many years, Tuggy finds fault with my argument by complaining about the logical difficulty of affirming that each person “is God” and yet that the persons are distinct from one another. “Things that are identical to the same thing are identical to one another.” With this analytical knife Tuggy thinks he can cut any presentation or defense of Trinitarian belief to ribbons without so much as opening a Bible. His point is that my argument is incoherent because (as he sees it) the affirmations that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God logically contradict the affirmation that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not each other. To this objection, I have three responses.

First, if there is a logical difficulty here, it arises from the teachings of the Bible, since we find all of these elements of the doctrine of the Trinity taught in Scripture.

Second, there are other apparent instances of logical difficulties or apparent contradictions in other aspects of biblical doctrine that most professing Christians, including very many Unitarians, accept without reservation. For example, many if not most Biblical Unitarians (the biblically conservative movement that sometimes describes itself as such) accept both the omniscience of God and the freedom of God. That is, they believe both that God knows all things and that he acts freely, choosing freely what he will do. Present this claim to a group of skeptics and watch them get out their analytical knives. If God knows what he will do (they will argue) then he cannot do otherwise, i.e., he cannot do anything other than what he knows he will do; but if he cannot do otherwise then he is not free in doing it. Is this a genuine logical contradiction? It looks like one.

Can I resolve this apparent contradiction? Perhaps the argument makes some assumptions about what it means to act freely that do not apply to the transcendent, eternal Creator. There is a lot of potential ambiguity in the words can and cannot as well as the word free. Here’s the thing: Even if I am unsure exactly how to resolve the apparent logical difficulty, I am fully warranted in believing both that God knows all things and that God freely chooses what he does. Moreover, if my proposed explanation for how God can know all things and make free choices is shown to have some difficulties, this does not mean that those two theological concepts are not both true. It would just mean that I don’t fully understand how God can be what he is. Not only would this outcome not bother me, it’s what I would expect to be the case.

Third, in my opinion the apparent logical difficulty that Tuggy finds in the doctrine of the Trinity arises because he is applying analytical concepts of identity to the transcendent, infinite God. The premise of his critique, as I quoted it earlier, is this: “Things that are identical to the same thing are identical to one another.” This premise works fine with finite, discrete objects or “things” that cannot be identical to “the same thing” (i.e., the same finite object) without being identical to each other. A finite object’s “identity” is defined by its boundaries, its limitations—its separateness from other finite things in the matrix of the created world. I am a separate being from you because we occupy different bodies, began our existence separately, have had different locations and movements as well as different experiences (thoughts, feelings) throughout our lives, have differing abilities, opinions, and interests, and so on. What if the three Persons of the Trinity co-exist eternally, are incorporeal and omnipresent, are omniscient, are omnipotent, and are absolutely perfect in wisdom and goodness? Then each knows every thought of the other two; each is present at all times with the other two, not just proximately but interiorly; each has all of the same abilities as the other two; and each is certainly in agreement with the other two regarding all things. If three Persons share this eternal, incorporeal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent nature, then in some way that defies easy analysis (for us!) it would appear that they are ontologically one even though they are also relationally or personally distinct from one another. The rule that things identical to the same thing are identical to one another does not seem to apply to three divine Persons of this nature.

Again, as with the issue of divine omniscience and volition, I do not need to be able to explain perfectly how God can be one God and three Persons in order to be reasonably warranted in believing both are true. If I have reasons to believe that the Bible is a reliable source of doctrinal truth about God (and I do), then I am warranted in believing a state of affairs that I cannot fully analyze rationally if the Bible teaches it. That having been said, in my opinion we can offer at least some reasonable explanation why Tuggy’s rational objection to Trinitarianism falls short of being the decisive disproof he claims.


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19 Responses to Dale Tuggy and the Biblical Basis of the Trinity, Part 2: Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Incoherent?

  1. Juanita Ann Winters says:

    With the exception of the first proposition that you present Rob, “The Father is God” I have yet to find any teachings in the Bible that support the other three. A simple list of book, chapter and verse would be appreciated. No lengthy explanations are needed at all; I can research your proof texts.

    I fully agree, there are things that may look like logical difficulties; things like how could something be created from nothing; things that we are not going to fully understand about the infinite. However, there can be no contradictions in scripture. God is not the author of confusion.

    That the trinity doctrine has, within itself, logical difficulties would not necessarily be a dis qualifier; but that it contradicts other scripture makes it a crime scene for me. I question, what would be the “motive” for this crime? The reason for this doctrine, as I see it, is to set up the deity and worship of Jesus.

    When cornered at the recent Conference, Tuggy appeared, all-be-it in a vague scrambled way, to acknowledge that Jesus could be worshiped; to the point of seemingly defending it, which rather shocked me. If this is, indeed, his position I presume the both of you would agree on the matter.

    I feel that you boys need to stop this school yard scrapping on the illusive definition of the trinity and take a stand on the real heart of the issue; can/should a man be capable of receiving worship.

    • robbowman says:

      Juanita, click on the link to my article at IRR.org that Tuggy was critiquing. You’ll find the link near the beginning of this blog post (where it says “Part VII”). You will find over a thousand biblical references, with book, chapter, and verse, with no lengthy explanations. Just what you wanted!

  2. Tuggy has been using a version of this argument for some time. We went back and forth on it a little in 2017.

    My first article: https://wordpress.com/view/beginningwisdom.org

    Tuggy’s response: https://trinities.org/blog/podcast-215-two-intelligent-responses-to-my-challenge/

    My response: https://beginningwisdom.org/dale-tuggy-responds/

    Ultimately, I think that you are correct that he is employing a particular definition of identity that no Trinitarian thinks applies to God. The unity within the Trinity is not that of numerical identity, but Tuggy repeatedly applies it as if it is relevant.

    • I was advised my first link above was wrong. Sorry about that. Here it is. https://beginningwisdom.org/dale-tuggys-challenge/

    • Dale says:

      “he is employing a particular definition of identity that no Trinitarian thinks applies to God”

      This is wildly mistaken – I explain why in podcast 261, which is my reply to Dr. Bowman’s replies here. This concept of identity is topic-neutral, and is taught in college level logic classes worldwide. To say this concept can’t be applied in the case of God, or that obviously valid inferences employing the concept of identity can’t be used in the case of God – these are bizarre and unwarranted claims. It would be like claiming that our concept of existence doesn’t apply to God, and that you can’t make a modus tollens argument concerning God.

  3. Timothy Knowlton says:

    Hello Rob!
    Perhaps this may be helpful. When I took J.P. Moreland’s Metaphysics class at Biola University in the 1990’s, he said something like this: There are two senses of the word “is” : “is” of identity and “is” of predication. When we say “Jesus is God”, we mean “is” of predication, not “is” of identity. Jesus is not God the Father, which is an “is” of identity. Rather, we are predicating “Deity/Divinity” to Jesus. The “is” of predication means Jesus shares the same nature/substance/essence as God the Father and the Holy Spirit.

    Moreover, it seems to be the case that there is no law of science, or law of logic, that says for every God that exists, there can only be one person per that God, or that for any one God there can only be one person.

    • Dale says:

      JP’s Metaphysics class at Biola/Talbot – that was where I first learned about the indiscernibility of identicals, and my memory is that J.P. explicitly applied to Jesus and God, shocking some of us. Yeah, many trinitarians, including Bill Craig, deny that that Jesus just is God (i.e. is numerically identical to God). Dr. Bowman should agree with us.

  4. William Lance Huget says:

    We can know truth about the triune understanding within parameters, but not exhaustively (mystery). God is one in one sense, but three in a different (vs same) sense, so there is no contradiction logically.

    As an aside, I think Tuggy is an Open Theist (like myself, but I am Trinitarian), so he would deny that God has exhaustive definite foreknowledge in light of libertarian free will. The point about affirming EDF and LFW without being able to understand it may be lost on Dale (but not other Unitarians or Trinitarians who reject Open Theism).

  5. Juanita Winters says:

    Perfect Rob. I was just able to check out your link. Have been sidetracked with life. When I get back on track I will dig into your references with enthusiastic passion.

  6. Juanita Winters says:

    Rob, having directed me to Part VII brought me to the conclusion of your thoughts. There was certainly enough scripture to get me started; however, the whole of your conclusion seemed to be based on the assertion that the Bible teaches the Trinity because the New Testament presents a consistent triad of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Certainly other of your Parts offer more evidence. .

    Point at hand, that our Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are mentioned in various verse along with the Father does not address the question of possible co-equality with God. Being separate “persons” who are equal in all ways they, therefore, could be separately worshiped as God. I am gravely concerned that this doctrine is the apostasy mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2 and is a deception perpetrated to pave the way for the worship of the Son of Perdition for which we are warned.

    I was led to start with your references in Acts.(Acts 1:4-8; 2:33, 38-39; 5:3-4, 9, 30-32; 7:55-56; 10:36-38, 44-48; 11:15-18; 15:8-11; 20:38; 28:25-31) but could find no indication that any separate but coequal or co-eternal positions exist within these references nor the whole book of Acts that would warrant/allow me to worship all as three in triad or separately as relational personalities.

    Quite to the contrary, there were many verses that were simple, clear and profitable for understanding who Jesus and the Holy Spirit are in relation to Father God. A few follow:

    Acts 2:22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know.

    Acts 2:36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.

    Acts 3:13 The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go.

    Acts 3:14 But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you;

    Acts 3:15 And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses.

    Acts 3:22 For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you.

    Acts 3:26 Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.

    Acts 4:24 And when they heard that, they lifted up their voice to God with one accord, and said, Lord, thou art God, which hast made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is:

    Acts 4:26 The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ.

    Acts 8:37 And Philip said, If thou believe with all thine heart, thou may And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

    Acts 10:38 How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.

    Acts 10:40 Him God raised up the third day, and shewed him openly;

    Acts 10:42 And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead.

    Acts 17:31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

    Acts 18:5 And when Silas and Timotheus were come from Macedonia, Paul was pressed in the spirit, and testified to the Jews that Jesus was Christ.

    Acts 20:21 Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Acts 22:5 And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecut.

    This was a rich study and I am thankful for the opportunity to have gotten more familiar with the book of Acts. Respectfully, I just could not see any scripture in Acts that would suggest a basis validating this doctrine. Which Part of your propositions would you suggest that I consider next?

    • Marc Taylor says:

      Hello Juanita,

      Your first citation of a passage from the Bible that you fully cited is Acts 2:22, but notice just one verse earlier that Peter (as well as the author Luke) applies YHWH of Joel 2:32 (3:5 LXX) unto the Lord Jesus in Acts 2:21. Notice as well that this affirms that the Lord Jesus is the proper recipient of prayer – and prayer is due unto God alone.

      • Juanita Winters says:

        Acts 2:21 does not tell us to call upon ‘YHVH’, but to call upon the “name” of YHVH.
        Consider the prayer of Jesus to the Father in the garden just before his atonement.

        John 17:6 I have manifested “thy name” unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world:

        John 17:11 And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through “thine own name” those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.

        John 17:12 While I was with them in the world, I kept them in “thy name”:

        John 17:26 And I have declared unto them “thy name”, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.

        The “Name” is a very thorny subject which can not be lightly handled and deserves more depth of study than using this one verse as proof text that it is referring to Jesus the man.


        Acts 2:22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did (not) “by” (but) “through” him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:

        • Marc Taylor says:

          The “name” of the Lord (Acts 2:21) that Peter proclaims to his audience corresponds to the the “name” of Jesus Christ that they are to be baptized in (Acts 2:38). In fact, virtually every use of the “name” in the Book of Acts refers to the Lord Jesus (see also Luke 24:47).
          Furthermore, this “calling on” the Lord Jesus in prayer is used elsewhere (Acts 7:59; 9:14, 21; 22:16; Romans 10:12-14; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:22).
          Finally, Peter would also also apply the “Lord” (YHWH) from the Old Testament unto the Lord Jesus in 1 Peter 2:3 (cf. Psalm 34:8) and 1 Peter 3:15 (Isaiah 8:13).

          • robbowman says:

            Very good comments.

            Sorry for the delay in getting your post approved. We changed servers recently and I’m still getting things figured out.

        • robbowman says:

          Sorry for the delay in getting your post approved. We changed servers recently and I’m still getting things figured out.

          • Marc Taylor says:

            Thanks Rob.
            I would also add 1 Peter 3:12 to the list of passages I cited above from Peter’s first epistle. We see that 1 Peter 2:3 is taken from Psalm 34:8. Then we see that Peter cites from this very same psalm again (34:15-16a) in 1 Peter 3:12. The “Lord” is used in reference to the Lord Jesus. This is very significant in that (1) YHWH from the Old Testament is applied unto the Lord Jesus and (2) this constitutes another passage which demonstrates that the Lord Jesus is the proper recipient of prayer. This is precisely what Paul also did in Romans 10:13 (cf. 2 Timothy 2:22).
            Thomas R. Schreiner: Bauckham argues that “Lord” refers to Christ since Peter when he cited Psalm 34 in 2:3, clearly identified the Lord as Christ (“James, 1 Peter and 2 Peter, Jude,” 313). Bauckham’s argument is persuasive since he takes into account the Petrine usage of the Psalm (The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Peter, Jude, volume 37, page 168, footnote 215).

  7. Pingback: podcast 261 – How to Argue that the Bible is Trinitarian – Response to Bowman – Trinities

  8. Dale says:

    I reply to Dr. Bowmna’s critique here: https://trinities.org/blog/podcast-261-how-to-argue-that-the-bible-is-trinitarian-response-to-bowman/ I encourage everyone to carefully think through the argument in the blog post. Thanks to Dr. Bowman for this engagement!

  9. Pingback: Dale Tuggy and the Biblical Basis of the Trinity, Part 2: Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Incoherent? - Reformologist

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