Thoughts on Solovyov and the Social Trinity

Vladimir Solovyov via Wikimedia Commons

This morning I was reading Vladimir Solovyov’s The Justification of the Good where he talks about pity being the foundation of altruism. He criticizes Shopenhauer, who said that pity arises out of an identification of the self with the other; the boundary between two separate things gets blurred. Solovyov criticizes this idea on the basis that there are not two purely separate things to begin with. Were that the case, and people were constantly confusing themselves with others, then not only would children eat while their mothers starved, but it is just as true that mothers could grow fat while their children starved. People would be in a constant state of confusion. That is manifestly not the case. 

Solovyov invites us to imagine a mother dog guarding her pups, attacking an attacker, and risking her life for the pups. There is some kind of identification going on, to be sure, but is it really true that the mother and the pups are, or ever were, two truly separate entities. At one point, they were one-in-the-same organism. Birth does not negate this fact. It puts distance between them, but they are not wholly distinct. Think about the pups suckling at their mother’s teat. Or to switch the image to humans (with which I am more familiar), a nursing infant takes nourishment from her mother, and the act of giving suck alters the mother’s chemistry to reduce the chances that she will become pregnant. What we are beginning to learn about the human microbiome gives further credence to Solovyov’s argument. There are many times more microorganisms in and on the human body than there are human cells. In fact, I am told, on the subject of breastmilk, I am told that there is a particular protein in breast milk that infants cannot process. It must first be broken down by a particular bacterium in their gut. Human have evolved a symbiosis with “other” organisms, which makes a person wonder how “other” those organisms really are.

This summary brings me to some bare speculations about the concept of the social trinity. Put simply, the social trinity stresses the distinction between the divine persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are imagined as, roughly speaking, separate actors, dancing together for all eternity. Their separation is consistent with the creedal concept of the different hypostases. Their sharing of a single, harmonious love and will is their one essence (ousia).

A lot of people, myself included, think the social trinity is basically tritheism. It is a kind of picture thinking that does not lend itself to cogent or orthodox theological thought. The “proof” of this criticism lies in Gregory of Nyssa’s own writings on the Trinity. Nyssen is seen as an early proponent of what is now referred to as this “social” trinitarian concept. In his writings to Ablabius, he said that the three persons share one nature just as all humans share one nature. Thus, we should not speak of different “men” [sic] but of different “man” [sic]. This is a pretty weak argument. On the face of it, it seems like a stretch. Gregory was trying to draw an analogy between the divine and human natures to make a case against the Arians, who said that the natures of the triune persons are not identical. But the divine and human natures are not in any way qualitatively similar.

Or maybe they are. I am not saying that I am changing my mind about the social trinity. I am not. But Solovyov does give a person pause to rethink her position. Maybe Nyssen was more correct than I want to give him credit for. John Zizioulas is a social trinitarian who argues that the hypostasis is a term that is completely interchangeable between God and humans. What it means to be a human person and what it means to be a divine person is identical, just so long as we keep in mind that we typically get the order wrong (that is, we tend to think of divine persons in terms of what we know about human persons when in fact we should think about human persons in terms of what is revealed about the divine). Though not a social trinitarian (to my knowledge, because he does not say much about the subject), Solovyov said the same thing—that person is an interchangeable term between the divine and the human. What Solovyov says about humanity, and really all living things, being one giant organism does lend itself to a reconsideration of Nyssen’s ostensibly weak analogy. Maybe, when it comes to human nature, we should not speak of different humans. We should speak of different human. If we are all distinct persons sharing one nature, like a single organism, then maybe there is more to this picture thinking than I want to acknowledge.

I don’t think so. But it’s still worth thinking about. An honest person must also be honest with herself. Only cowards are afraid to change their minds.

So what do you think? Should I change my mind? What am I missing here?


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