I’ve been reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s outstanding history of Christianity (it’s enormously absorbing, and full of fascinating detail) and I’m currently immersed in the factional disputes of the fourth century A.D., when the biggest problem of the day was to work out a good account of the Trinity, and in particular the nature of Christ. It’s tricky — this triune-Godhead business can get awfully knotty, when you get down to details.

Leaving aside the Holy Spirit, about which nobody seemed to have any clear idea at all, the problem was how to assemble a coherent model that included all of these three features at once:

1) God, the First Person of the Trinity, is of the purest, transcendent divinity, eternal and uncreated and beyond real human understanding. There’s nothing human about God.

2) Christ was a man. That’s vitally important to his role as Redeemer: that he suffered as a man would suffer.

3) Christ is divine. Obviously this is a essential tenet of Christianity. In some sense at least, it is necessary to be able to say that Christ is God.

So the question is: what is Christ, that he can bridge, in one entity, the gulf between man and God? If Christ is to be truly identical to God, then he cannot in any meaningful sense be human; to the extent that Christ is human, he is necessarily distinct from God. Broadly speaking, there were two opposing views, neither perfectly satisfactory.

First was the view that Christ was in fact simply God made flesh, and that to the extent Christ had any real human nature at all, it was mixed in him with God’s divinity as water mixes with wine. But if you simply make Christ God Incarnate, then you are saying the the mind of Christ was really the mind of God. This was horrifying to some theologians, as it completely fails to satisfy requirement 2).

Second is the view known at the time as Arianism, which saw Christ as subordinate to God: a created being, partly human and partly divine, in which God’s divinity mixed with Jesus’s human nature in the way that oil mixes with water — separate and distinct, though both contained in the same vessel. The problem with this view is that by binding Christ so firmly to his humanity, it diminishes him in relation to God.

Attempts to untie this knot often descended to plays on language. Were God and Christ one “substance” (homoousios)? Were they of non-identical, but similar “substance” (homoiousios)? Or were they of different “substance” altogether (heteroousios)?

Well, who the hell knows! The one-substance faction gained the upper hand at the First Council of Nicaea in 325, but the problem never went away.

Anyway, Maculloch’s account of all this wrangling, and all the parties involved, is very interesting. As I was reading about it, though, a stray idea popped into my head: why not a quantum Christ?

The way a piece of quantumstuff (a “quon”) presents itself depends on the way you measure it (to be specific, in the way you reduce its eigenfunction): measure it one way, it’s a wave, measure it another way, it’s a particle. Also, the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics specifies complementary pairs of attributes: the accuracy with which you determine the value of one attribute of a complementary pair (position, say) causes a proportional fuzziness in its complement (the complement of position is momentum). If you conduct your measurement so as to have maximum certainty about attribute a, its complementary attribute b is maximally undefined; it just can’t be helped. (And by the way, this isn’t just a problem with measurement, either: making a precise measurement of a forces b actually to become maximally undefined.)

So maybe Jesus the Son of Man is just Christ-measured-as-a-human. And maybe Divinity and Humanity are complementary attributes of Quantum Christ: zero in on his human aspect, and you know nothing certain about his divinity; focus on his Godhead, and you cannot pin him down as a man.

Just a thought. Please don’t ask me what the equations are going to look like.


  1. Kevin Kim says

    Sounds as if you’re merrily working your way through a Christology 101 course! Except for the quantum-related remarks, of course. Enjoy the ride. It’s nutty stuff.

    Posted July 18, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Permalink
  2. What are the equations going to look like?

    Posted July 18, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Didn’t think it would be right not to offer a little background there, Kevin, for the lay reader or the madrassa-educated.

    What it is is a history course, and a darn good one. But yes, there’s plenty of theology in this book too, because the story can’t be made sense of without it.

    Bill V. has a lot to say about the Trinity; I might have to mosey over to his archives.

    Posted July 18, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Henry, I asked you not to ask me that.

    Posted July 18, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  5. Another way of analyzing the God/Jesus Duality is in terms of a complexity, analogous to a complex number (which latter comprises a real and an imaginary component).

    In this analogy, let God be the so-called “wholly other” component, in the sense that it can not be comprehended by mortals (analogous to the imaginary component of the complex number, whose coefficient is the square root of -1). Let Jesus be the humanly comprehensible component (analogous to the real component of the complex number).

    Thus, the Christian Deity (without the Holy Spirit, which nobody knows what to do with) would comprise a Holy Dual-Complexity, the only portion comprehensible to humans being Jesus. The corresponding analogy in complex numbers being that the projection of a complex number on the real-number axis is the real component of the complex number.

    As for the Holy Spirit of the Trinity, we might consider a third dimension of complexity, along the lines of the additional dimensions introduced by string theory. But we might want to leave this to another flight of fancy at some future time …

    Posted July 18, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  6. Kevin Kim says


    Yes, MacCulloch’s historical treatment was recommended to me last year, and I’ve had it on my Amazon Wish List for a while. You beat me to the punch.

    Dr. V’s posts on the Trinity have often explored the problem of trinitarian theology’s coherence through the lens of mereology. I recall posts about counting parcels of land and six-packs of beer. I think there was some identity theory in there, too. Much of it was over my head.

    Posted July 19, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  7. bob koepp says

    I haven’t read MacCulloch’s book, but I’m curious as to whether he covers the political “backstory” of the evolution of “the church” as well as the theological wrangling. While I don’t doubt the sincerity of those wranglers, I do question the relevance of trinitarian theology to the spread of Christianity.

    Posted July 19, 2011 at 8:38 am | Permalink
  8. the one eyed man says

    I thought the Holy Trinity was a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke? I must have been misinformed.

    Posted July 19, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  9. bob koepp says

    Peter – Most definitely, you have been misinformed. It’s cheeseburger, fries and a Pepsi. And that’s why I’m skeptical about the relevance of trinitarian theology to the spread of Christianity.

    Posted July 19, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink
  10. the one eyed man says

    Good to know. As long as it’s not the Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack.

    Posted July 19, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says


    Oh yes, MacCulloch’s book gets very deeply into the political backstory throughout the timeline.

    It’s not that the doctrine of the Trinity itself is central to the spread of Christianity, as much as the notion of Christ as God made man for the purpose of redemption. But that of course necessarily entails all the Christological difficulties that the various factions disputed.

    In the third century there was a great deal of jockeying for influence among the bishops of the major Christian cities of the day, in particular Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, with each taking a particular slant on these questions. So the wrangling at the councils was as geopolitical as it was theological.

    Posted July 19, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

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