Clarification for this article is found in this podcast episode from The Particular Baptist Podcast. Ensure to listen to this episode in its entirety after reading this article: Three Centers of Consciousness? James White and the Doctrine of God
A recent post from our Twitter and Facebook pages sparked controversy, as these types of things tend to do. I had posted the announcement of James White becoming a faculty member at Grace Baptist Theological Seminary in Conway, Arkansas. The headline caught people’s attention, “Those with a bad doctrine of God tend to hang together.” This prompted blowback but also questions about what the issue was with White’s doctrine of God. James White has quite the dedicated following which is, I think, what provoked the responses we received. There was even a comment that said of James White, and I quote, “His theology is above reproach.” This type of response I think characterizes the pedestal that he has been placed on over the years (for better or for worse). This is not meant to be an exhaustive review of his theology proper (aka the doctrine of God), but one aspect of it that is indeed troubling. It is also not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of theology proper in general, but I hope that it will whet the appetite of those who are learning that they may study this issue more. I want to emphasize that this article is directed to those who are learning and may not be aware of the issues as it relates to the doctrine of God. This is not an article directed at White. As such, the tone of the article will be different than if I was addressing him directly or writing a dedicated critique of his theology proper. I have learned much from White and I think there is much that can be used of him, but the doctrine of God is foundational and if there is a doubling down in bad theology proper in light of being corrected more than once, I believe there is cause for sharp rebuke. Finally, for those who wish to study more on the doctrine of God (and I urge you to), I will list resources for further study at the end of the article.
Let us go back 10 years to 2011 (wow, that was 10 years ago?) where James White participated in a debate with Roger Perkins on the doctrine of the Trinity. Perkins argued against the Trinity while White attempted to argue in the affirmative. The title was called “The Trinity Debate” and it can be found below. During a Q&A session (starting at the 2-hour mark) James White is asked by Perkins, “…does each divine individual in the Trinity possess their own separate mind or center of consciousness apart from the other two divine Persons?” James White then responds, “That’s how they recognize each other and interact with each other…” Perkins did push him later to see if James believed in a “three-minded God,” which he denied because human language is used to describe what is being discussed. At the very least, James affirms that God has “three centers of consciousness”.
This thinking seems fine as far as it goes. Jesus interacts with the Father. He was with the Father (John 1:1). James even discusses in his opening statement Jesus talking with the Father in John 17 so it would appear that Jesus is a separate consciousness from the Father and, by implication, the Holy Spirit if He is able to interact, love, talk, etc. with the other two Persons. However, words do have implications and if implications are left unchecked, it can lead to problematic interpretations, and this is no less true of the Scriptures. I want to look at three things:
- What are the implications for saying God has “three centers of consciousness”?
- Is this a biblical assertion?
- Do we see this as being historically orthodox?
Implications for a multi-conscience God
Saying God is multi-consciousness implies at the very least:
- God has multiple minds (contrary to what White asserted)
- God has multiple wills
If each one of these Persons can interact in a personal way with one another (according to White’s view) then there must be a consciousness that personal interaction is based on. This however, contrary to White’s assertion, does lead to a three-minded God. How does it make sense that these Persons can all have their own consciousness and interact, love, recognize each other, etc. but not have three minds? Doesn’t recognition require an act of the mind since it has to do with knowledge? White also asserted that there are three centers of consciousness since they “interact” with each other. But interaction, on the account of separate centers of consciousness, would require three wills in order for said Persons to be able to act on their own consciousness! If the Father can interact independently of the other two Persons, He has His own consciousness, then this must needs imply the Father has His own will distinct from the other two Persons. He is His own agent within the Godhead. This breaks the unity of the Godhead. Even having more than one consciousness itself makes God partite by virtue of an absolute property of God being multiplied. Instead of three relations subsisting as one being only distinguished by their operations (relations do not divide as per the nature of a relation) we now have a God who has three separate wills, centers of consciousness, and agency. God is no longer simple, but partite. We now have a God made of parts that is built upon things that are not in themselves God. Danger has come. Now this does not mean that the implications of White’s system are held expressly by him. He may deny that God has three wills just like he denies that God is three-minded, but without consistent qualifications you are left with the necessary implications of the system and therein lies the danger.
Is “three centers of consciousness” a biblical assertion?
Above all else when we talk about who God is, it must be maintained without compromise that God is one. We see this laid out expressly in the Pentateuch.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.Deuteronomy 6:4 (ESV)
This addresses at least two things about God’s nature: there is only one God numerically and that God is in complete unity. There are no parts of God, or it could not be properly said that God is “one” especially when the foundation of this “oneness” is the Tetragramaton or “I AM” which is found in Exodus 3:14. This declaration is none other than God existing in complete distinction from His creation in this existence that is of Himself. His nature is that which is self-existent without the need for anything or anyone outside of His essence. He just is.
No man is humanity as such, but God is divinity as such. Many theologians even conclude that God’s essential identity with His own existence is the ontological foundation of His name “I AM” (Ex. 3:14) …If God should be composed of parts—of components that were prior to Him in being—He would be doubly dependent: first, on the parts, and second, on the composer of the parts. But God is absolute in being, alone the sufficient reason for Himself and all other things, and so cannot in any respect derive His being from another. Because God cannot depend on what is not God in order to be God, theologians traditionally insist that all that is in God is God.James Dolezal, All That Is in God
John Gill in his Bible commentary has beautiful things to say about Deuteronomy 6:4:
the doctrine of which is, that the Lord, who was the covenant God and Father of his people Israel, is but one Jehovah; he is Jehovah, the Being of beings, a self-existent Being, eternal and immutable; and he is but one in nature and essence; this appears from the perfection of his nature, his eternity, omnipotence, omnipresence, infinity, goodness, self-sufficiency, and perfection; for there can be but one eternal, one omnipotent, one omnipresent, one infinite, one that is originally and of himself good; one self, and all sufficient, and perfect Being; and which also may be concluded from his being the first cause of all things, which can be but one; and from his relations to his creatures, as their King, ruler, governor, and lawgiver.John Gill, John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible, https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/deuteronomy-6-4.html
If God were composed of different parts making up a whole there would be something that is not God causing God to be. This undermines aseity, His “is-ness” so to speak. He would be dependent upon something greater than Himself since those things that compose Him are prior to Him and make Him to be. This flatly contradicts clear passages of Scripture on God’s independence from anything outside of Himself. For example,
For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever. Amen.Romans 11:36 (ESV)
All things cannot be from one who has something/someone greater than Himself. It would only be some things at best since God would be a secondary cause, but He would not be the first cause of all things and even with some things coming from Him they would not ultimately be from Him. God Himself would be dependent. The Scripture asserts that all things come from God which by necessity means God cannot be anything other than the supreme, independent, self-sustaining being that created all things. This leaves out any notion that God could be composed of parts (or that He could change) since parts imply something greater than God, as was already discussed. Paul, earlier in the same chapter, discussed the omniscience of God, that there was no one who counseled Him. He knows all things by virtue of His supreme nature. He is the truly a se one.
Simplicity, therefore, protects us from thinking of God’s wisdom and knowledge as an idealized version of man’s knowledge. God does not know things because He came to know them through discovery and deduction. God knows all things because He knows Himself, and all things are from Him, through Him, and to Him.Samuel Renihan, Deity & Decree, page 70
Simplicity is what implications of “three minds,” “centers of consciousness,” etc. violates. Some may say, “you are just borrowing from Aristotle or Greek philosophy.” No, this is the necessary implication as found in Scripture. If “A” is true as found in Scripture (that God is a se and the first cause of all things) then “B” must necessarily follow (that He cannot be partite). Ergo, He cannot have multiple wills, minds, or consciousness. This hermeneutic follows the principle as found in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith. The latter says it better when it notes,
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelation of the Spirit, or traditions of men.2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith Chapter 1, paragraph 6 (emphasis mine)
Notice the language here. Not only is what is explicitly said in Scripture to be received but what is implied necessarily. This is a foundational piece in understanding how to interpret passages about God. If a concept of God’s nature necessarily follows what is expressly said, it is Scripture in as much as the concepts that follow are being taught there. John Owen notes this concept of necessary implications in Scripture in talking about the Trinity,
Wherefore, in the declaration of the doctrine of the Trinity, we may lawfully, nay, we must necessarily, make use of other words, phrases, and expressions, than what are literally and syllabically contained in the Scripture, but teach no other things. Moreover, whatever is so revealed in the Scripture is no less true and divine as to whatever necessarily follows thereon, than it is as unto that which is principally revealed and directly expressed.John Owen, A Brief Declaration and Vindication of The Doctrine of the Trinity and also of The Person and Satisfaction of Christ
In fact, it was heretics who pressed against the idea of good and necessary consequence in the Scripture while the orthodox saw it as critical to the discussion. Turretin notes,
The Arians, Sabellians and other anti-Trinitarians pressed this against the orthodox in their day—that the names ousias, homoousios, hypostaseōs, etc. did not occur in the Scriptures and so ought not to be admitted in the church. Arius asks, “Why is the word, of which neither the prophets nor the apostles make mention, added to the apostolic faith?”Francis Turretin, Institutes of Eclectic Theology
Homoousios, meaning of the same substance, was used by Nicea to show that the Son was really God and equal to Him by being of the same substance as the Father. Yet this word is nowhere to be found in Scripture explicitly. But the Nicean council saw this concept as the natural flow of special revelation and to deviate from this language of God was to follow in Arius’ footsteps. What the WCF and 2LBCF show is that they are following in the steps of the orthodox, Christian church going back long before Aquinas and the Reformed scholastics, identifying with Scripture. This is in perfect unison with sola scriptura, a pillar of the Reformation in Europe.
Three Centers of Consciousness Among the Orthodox?
I want to mention some church fathers that can help shed light on whether this idea of “centers of consciousness” would be held among the orthodox.
We have one God because there is a single Godhead. Though there are three objects of belief, they derive from the single whole and have reference to it. They do not have degrees of being God or degrees of priority over against one another. They are not sundered in will or divided in power. You cannot find there any of the properties inherent in things divisible. To express it succinctly, the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided.Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ
Here we see clear testament to the unity of the Godhead. There is no division in being whatsoever. While there is distinction (a distinction that does not divide by virtue of the Persons being relations) in God by virtue of the Persons, there is no division in the being of God. There is one will, not three which would be created by three centers of consciousness that interact with one another.
I cannot conceive what manner of mind our opponents have, who pervert the truth, darken the light, divide the indivisible, rend the scatheless, dissolve the perfect unity. It may seem to them a light thing to tear up Perfection, to make laws for Omnipotence, to limit Infinity; as for me, the task of answering them fills me with anxiety; my brain whirls, my intellect is stunned, my very words must be a confession, not that I am weak of utterance, but that I am dumb.Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity: Book II
This is a sobering passage. The doctrine of God was not to be trifled with and it was seen as a serious offense when deviation from orthodoxy was introduced into theology proper. But again, here we see a confession of the unity of God. It is a “perfect unity” one that if compromised undermines God himself.
He is a simple, uncompounded Being, without diverse members, and altogether like, and equal to Himself, since He is wholly understanding, and wholly spirit, and wholly thought, and wholly intelligence, and wholly reason, and wholly hearing, and wholly seeing, and wholly light, and the whole source of all that is good—even as the religious and pious are wont to speak concerning God.Irenaeus of Lyons, Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.13.3, in The Apostolic Fathers—Justin Martyr—Irenaeus, vol. 1 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson and Bernhard Pick (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903). as found in James Dolezal’s book All That is In God on pages 47 and 48 Kindle Edition.
Keep in mind that Irenaeus came long before Nicea, having lived in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. This points to the fact the absolute unity of God’s being was not something novel, but seen as being consistent with Scripture and taught very early on.
Now, you may say, “These fathers did not say anything expressly about three centers of consciousness. You are stretching their meaning.” I would point you again to the implications of saying God has these qualities. The implications, as has been demonstrated, violate the principles of a unified essence, not broken but simple, especially since White’s view leads inevitably to tritheism (although he would deny tritheism). That means the orthodox fathers would not have held to White’s view. Also, orthodox Christianity did not see the concept of “Persons” in God to be like human persons which would require their own consciousness, rather they saw them as “subsistences”. The Augsburg Confession of Faith in Article I lays this out very well,
Our Churches, with common consent, do teach that the decree of the Council of Nicaea concerning the Unity of the Divine Essence and concerning the Three Persons, is true and to be believed without any doubting; that is to say, there is one Divine Essence which is called and which is God: eternal, without body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, the Maker and Preserver of all things, visible and invisible; and yet there are three Persons, of the same essence and power, who also are coeternal, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. And the term “Person” they use as the Fathers have used it, to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.Augsburg Confession of Faith, Article I
You can see in the last sentence that “Person” is not according to human understanding, but a subsistence of the divine essence. This preserves God’s unity while noting the indivisible distinctions between them. This is a far cry from three centers of consciousness which sees “Persons” interpreted in light of human persons rather than letting the unity of the divine essence determine what a “Person” properly should be. Implications of words matter.
There is much more that could be said, and I’ve only done a survey of the topics at hand. I hope this helps to clarify why James White has erred and why I believe his doctrine of God, at least in this area, is heterodox. I would urge those who want to learn more to get your hands on the following resources:
- Deity & Decree by Samuel Renihan
- All That is In God by James Dolezal
- Simply Trinity by Matthew Barrett
- Trinity & Creation by Richard Barcellos
- Interpreting Scripture with the Great Tradition by Craig A. Carter
Other TPB team members and I have done podcast episodes on theology proper, and most can be found here: