Monday, 27 October 2014

The Trinity and Cerberus



In Greek mythology there was a three-headed dog dwelling in the underworld. This mythical beast is sometimes used as an analogy for the Trinity, most famously by the Evangelical apologist William Lane Craig. By this analogy, the three heads of Cerberus each has a mind or soul and is thus a person or center of consciousness. Each of these persons possess the entire body of the dog Cerberus. In the same way each of the persons of the Trinity possess the entire substance of the Godhead.

There are some who object to this analogy on the grounds that it is irreverent or blasphemous to compare God to a demonic monster from hell. I think this is being a little delicate. This is an analogy. To make analogy with a three-leafed clover as Saint Patrick did is not to say that God is like a plant. Sometimes Jehovah's Witnesses compare the Trinity to Cerberus in derision. We should avoid using the Cerberus analogy with them, as it will only confirm their conviction that the Trinity is a pagan monstrosity.

As with any Trinitarian analogy, the Cerberus model has problems. Some suggest that it implies the partialist error, that is that the members of the Trinity are parts of a divided whole. This is the main problem with the classic Shamrock. The leaves of the clover are mere parts of the whole plant, in contrast to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who each possess the entire Godhead. This is actually not a problem for the Cerberus analogy. Each of the souls or minds of Cerberus possesses the whole of Cerberus' body.

A more significant, though complex objection is in the way it understands person-hood. The Cerberus analogy as Craig outlines it, assumes a modern view of persons as 'centers of consciousness.' This is probably not how the Cappadocian Fathers who framed the orthodox understanding of the Trinity viewed personhood. They viewed persons more as relations than individual minds defined by consciousness. I don't think this is actually a substantial problem with the analogy. The analogy does not require us to personhood in those specific terms. It simply establishes a distinction between personhood and essence.

A more significant problem lies in the different nature of the substance in question. The body of Cerberus is a physical substance. The essence of God, however, is a spiritual substance and arguably equivalent to being a soul in the Cerberus analogy. It is difficult to see how the undivided essence of God would not be a center of consciousness. This is not an easy obstacle to overcome and requires us to look deeply into the inter-Trinitarian relationships, how the three persons relate to the one divine essence.


I think the real usefulness of the Cerberus analogy is as a starting point to understanding the person/ substance distinction. Your average western Christian is likely to be an unconscious modalist, who will tend to think of God as being one person. Bringing up Cerberus is a good way to explain the logical basis of distinguishing between personhood and substance.

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