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THE EPISTEMOLOGICAL NECESSITY OF TRI-UNITY

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J. Alexander Rutherford

2017
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I think we can agree that a god who knew nothing about himself—was completely devoid

of self-knowledge—would be no god at all (before creating something else, such a being would

have no knowledge in any respect). Many religions posit gods that implicitly or explicitly have

self-knowledge—for some this defines god (Aristotle’s god is thought thinking thought)—yet is

it possible for singular being to have self-knowledge? What if self-knowledge were only possible

in relation to something else, only with plurality? A bit of thought, I believe, reveals that

knowledge, and so self-knowledge, requires a minimum of three points of reference (subject and

two others). That is, I want to argue that no conception of god except that of the Triune God who

has revealed Himself in the Bible allows for God to possess self-knowledge. First we will

consider knowledge in general, then human self-knowledge, finally we will explore how only the

Triune God could be God on grounds of self-knowledge.

That human knowing involves three points of reference has long been recognized in

epistemology (epistemology: the study of how and what we know). Each form of epistemology

has classically weighted one reference point above the rest: Rationalism prioritizes the

normative: true knowledge is found in contemplation of logic or perfect ideas that are not related

to subjective experience or objective reality (e.g., Plato). Empiricism prioritizes the objective,

those things that we sense: it is the sensible world that provides knowledge; we know it through

the senses (e.g., Hume). Subjectivism (going by many names) emphasizes the knowing subject at

the expense of an objective reality or normative principles: knowledge is what I think, what I

feel, my experiences and desires regardless of their correspondence or coherence with principles

or objects outside of myself (e.g, Postmodernism, Post-structuralism). Yet true knowledge comes

not from any one of these apart from the others (subject without object, without a standard of

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true and false), but from the union of the subject, object, and norm.1 Knowledge involves the

subject interacting with an object (a thing, event, idea) against a standard of reference

(interpretation, logic, ultimately God and so His revelation). Without some sort of normative

reference, no meaning can be attributed to an object, and with pure subjectivity, there is no

certainty (for there is nothing by which a thought can be compared) or possibility of

communication (for there is nothing by which expression can be interpreted). What if the object

of contemplation is the subject itself, does this epistemological situation change?

When we consider self-knowledge, it may seem at first that all that is needed ourselves

and a standard. That is, I have some immediate knowledge of thought but I need external

concepts by which my thought can be made sense—thought to be thought must have definite

content other than itself (if thought is merely of thought, what is the meaning of thought of which

thought is thinking?). So I need myself, the thinker, and standard by which to give meaning to

that which I think. But is that all we need? I think we need more: how do we go about thinking

about ourselves? I suggest that we need some sort of mirror, whether that is physical or

metaphorical. We need something to see ourselves in. That is, when we contemplate our visual

appearance, true knowledge requires mirrors (not to mention a medium through which light may

travel and a source of light). If we ignore the necessity of light, a system of mirrors is necessary

to get a true picture of ourselves. Without a mirror, we will see only in part, being unable to see

the entirety of ourselves. No matter how hard I try, without a mirror I cannot see the back of my

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This can be illustrated in the realm of ethical knowledge, what is right in a specific situation (something is
right if it is true that someone is morally obligated to do this). To make an ethical situation there must be someone
considering whether something is right or wrong, the subject; there must be the situation itself, the ‘object’ of ethical
judgment; and there must be a standard of right or wrong that they are applying, the norm. Different subjects, with
differing authorities and relationships to a law will find differing things right and wrong (it is right for a cop to carry
a handgun in public in Canada, this is not right for a civilian). Differing situations require different applications of a
standard, but a standard is necessary in every situation if there is to be a right or wrong action.

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head, the back of my neck, much of my back, parts of my lower body. From the perspective of

one who has seen a full human body in another person or in a textbook, he is able to fill in the

blanks—the gaps in his field of view are not so significant. But if one has no other means of

knowing oneself, such lacunae are devastating: what if the essence of a being lies in those parts

that it cannot see? True self-knowledge, here on the physical level, needs some external mirror at

minimum to give a full picture. This can be extended metaphorically to the interior.

How do we know our character, all of what we would say is who we are? We know our

names because they have been given to us, we can hear them or read them on a paper, but more

significantly, we know our character because we can remember how we have acted in different

situations. I know I am prideful because I know how I have thought about myself in comparison

with others, by how I have treated others, how I have thought about my own actions. In order for

me to understand myself, I need a standard of interpretation (norm) and something by which I

can see myself, hear myself. I need, in the most basic sense, relationship: I know my physical

abilities by my relation to physical objects—what can I lift, what can’t I—I know my mental

abilities by thinking about things; I know my character through the way I speak and treat others.

Fundamental, then, to self-knowledge is both a medium (a ‘mirror’) by which to observe oneself

and a standard by which to measure and interpret that observation. Therefore, self-knowledge

fundamentally needs three points of reference, the self plus an object by which to see the self and

a norm.2

How does all this relate to the Trinity? Our God is Triune: from before the foundations of

the world were laid, God existed as three persons yet one God. Much has rightfully been written

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Our norm is ultimately God as revealed in Jesus Christ: only in reference to Him do we understand
ourselves fully. But we can still get knowledge through a negative standard: by contrasting ourselves with someone
different—even if their differences are negative (wickedness)—we understand ourselves better.

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on how a God who loves must necessarily be Triune3 and how only our Triune God explains the

plurality and unity displayed in our world; I proffer here further thoughts on how the structure of

our world reflects the God who created it and how the only tenable God is the True God. We

have seen briefly that knowledge of others and knowledge of self both require three points of

reference (subject, object/mirror, and norm), it is therefore the case that any god worth its salt,

any being that can be said to know itself, must either exist with a plurality of other beings—no

longer qualifying as an absolute god—or have (at least) three points of reference within its

singularity. Only the Trinity does this, incorporate the necessary plurality required for knowledge

within the singularity required of God. Any person of our God can know the others by reference

to one as the standard (for God himself is the normative standard for knowledge4) and one being

known (object): the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit know themselves perfectly in their individuality

and unity with reference to one another as one to whom they related (the mirror) and the other as

the standard of knowledge.

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Though I think that some of the arguments concerning why three and not two need revision.
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Millennia ago, Plato, in his Euthyphro dialogue, argued against the gods by showing that if their wills
were the standard of virtue (goodness, holiness), then there was only ever relativity (they could declare rape right
one day and wrong the next); but if the standard of virtue was outside of them, they were not gods in any real sense
of the word (for there was something greater than them). Christians have answered this dilemma by pointing out that
God Himself is the standard of all virtue, and His eternal plan for creation the standard of all knowledge. God as a
personal being characterized by faithfulness is the unchanging standard by which everything else is measured, e.g.,
by His goodness, goodness is known.

© J. Alexander Rutherford – 2017