For years now I have been working on articles and a dissertation about a person I would consider the greatest Anglican theologian of the 20th century, Lionel S. Thornton. His voluminous writings display a depth of philosophical and biblical insight rarely matched among professional theologians. And although basically unknown today, it is not due to a lack of substance but to the difficulty of his style of writing and the topics about which he wrote. Not least, Thornton’s figural method of interpreting Scripture was a stumbling block to his contemporaries.

In a later post, I would love to pursue Thornton’s hermeneutics, but today I will focus on one aspect of Trinitarian theology in his early book The Incarnate Lord.[1] There Thornton faced head-on a difficulty of monotheism; namely, that “reason is dissatisfied with any form of dualism which cannot be resolved into unity.”[2] A major theme of this book is that “the Incarnation when accepted as true is found to bring invaluable aid to theistic beliefs … by disclosing the true nature of the bond between God and his creation.”[3]

In other words, the Creator-creation distinction lies at the heart of monotheism. Yet without the revelation of the Incarnation and the Trinity, reason is strongly tempted to collapse God and creation into monistic abstraction — the tendency to “relegate all plurality to a world of appearances.”[4]

Among non-Trinitarian, “Unitarian” monotheisms stand Islamic and “modern philosophical theism,” which are historically dependent upon Jewish-Christian tradition.[5] Even though Thornton does not explore the trajectories of the latter forms of Unitarian monotheism, he might have marshalled some historical evidence from them to prove one of his hypotheses: without the balance of revelation in Scripture, theisms easily slide into monism. One only needs to scan the history of Islamic philosophy and mysticism to see why they often sit uneasily with canonical Islam and its absolute distinction between God and creation. The history of Jewish Kabbalistic speculation also offers a mixed bag in this regard, as does the Christian appropriation of these latter traditions. The subsequent trajectory of Unitarianism in England, Europe, and America similarly illustrates the porous boundaries between non-scriptural theisms and transcendental pantheism – which is to say, religious monism. If it were up to the monotheist’s powers of abstraction, he would include God and the world in one monad, and this at the expense of a personal God. What normally prevents this move is a commitment to scriptural language.


Biblical language, according to Thornton, is essentially anthropomorphic; its life-blood is the analogy between God and man.[6] For religious experience is essentially concrete and plural, not abstract and systematic.[7] Yet the creative tension between reason and revelation, the abstract and the concrete, must be held together. If not, the God of reason becomes entirely abstract and impersonal.

Like the anthropomorphic God of religion, rational monotheism relies upon an analogy between God and man, albeit of a different kind. In agreement with Hume, Thornton believes Unitarian analogy selectively ignores plurality. By moving from the unities – or “individualities” in Thornton’s terms — of creation to the absolute individuality of God, Unitarian monotheists must arbitrarily bracket out an analogy from the plurality of creation to a plurality of gods.

For Thornton, however, unity and plurality are not incompatible, and this is not simply an assertion of their alleged, archetypal synthesis within the divine life of the Trinity. As a Christian, Thornton believes the Trinity is in some way an archetype of the unity and plurality in creation.[8] But it is not as if the unity and plurality in creation are any more separable or reducible one to the other than in the Trinity.

An inherent difficulty in “archetypal” language about the Trinity’s relationship to creation in both Thornton and in other modern Trinitarian theologians is that the relation of created “types” to their divine “archetype” can easily be interpreted as deductive proofs. They are not. If they were, one might conclude without the help of revelation that Absolute Reality must be a synthesis of unity and plurality. Here logic would surely again reflect a monistic ontology: continuity between the being of God and the being of creation. Instead, revealed religion provides a model for interpreting our experiences that marvellously coheres with them.

In accordance with tradition, Thornton is clear that the Trinity can only be known through revelation. Trinitarian reflections in creation, then, do not logically indicate God. They analogically indicate him, reflecting the essentially free and non-necessary relationship of the Creator to his creation. Not only does this fact guarantee the place of Scripture for theology; it reflects the way in which the biblical canon has historically regulated monotheistic language and prevented it from sliding towards monism.

But what is the particular analogy for the Trinity found in creation that Thornton has in mind? Why, in other words, does creation favor Trinitarianism and not Unitarianism, with its logical offshoot, monism?

Thornton distinguishes between absolute unity (monism) and absolute individuality in God, an individuality analogous to the finite individuality we concretely experience in creation. According to Thornton creation includes a series of ascending levels of increasingly distinct individual entities at the top of which are human beings. Each level is increasingly distinct because, while at the bottom level of creation atoms are rather generic, at the highest level human persons are each unique.

The increasing individuality of each stage of creation, however, is not accompanied by a decreasing “social” interconnection with other individuals at the same level. In fact, the individual is only unique insofar as it fills a place within the social organism — has a unique “vocation.” This is certainly not to claim that creation itself exhibits a perfect balance between the social and the individual.[9] Still, creation truly indicates that individuality is constituted both by an inward, personal harmony and an outward, social harmony:[10] unity and plurality are two aspects of individuality.

At every stage in its manifestation the created principle of finite individuality is seen to have two aspects, unity and plurality. It moves steadily towards higher forms of unity. But at no stage in the organic series is the aspect of plurality eliminated. Consequently if the analogy between finite and absolute individuality is to be drawn at all, it is a highly arbitrary procedure to select one aspect of individuality for the purpose of the analogy and to ignore the other; to regard individuality in God as an undifferentiated unity, when the experience of individuality, from which the analogy is drawn, is of a wholly different character.[11]

The irreducible unities and pluralities of creation are, therefore, analogies for God: the Incarnate Son and the immanent Trinity.

Creation is incomplete without the supernatural crown worn by the Incarnate Lord, which is to say that the highest stage of individuation within creation is in the body of Jesus. Christ at once synthesizes the many members of the Church in his one person. But unity and plurality are neither abolished in Christ, nor within the uncreated Trinity.

In discussing the Christian Unitarianism of “modalism,” which reduces the plurality of Trinitarian persons to mere manifestations, Thornton highlights the arbitrary and illogical compromise modalists must admit in their analogy between God and creation. By not allowing the apparent paradox of unity and plurality to stand within God, individuality and personhood are in danger of being abolished in favor of an abstract unity.[12] The same abstraction in relation to creation would abolish all distinctions therein — ultimately even the distinction between God and creation.

Perhaps we run up against the limits of human reason when we fail to resolve the stubborn fact of unity and plurality on both the natural and the supernatural level. The dilemma is not unique to theology. On the contrary, the Bible’s paradoxes both reflect the paradoxes found in non-theological disciplines and, when respected, prevent a monotheistic slide towards an impersonal and abstract monism.


[1] Lionel Spencer Thornton, The Incarnate Lord: An Essay Concerning the Doctrine of the Incarnation in Its Relations to Organic Conceptions (Longmans, Green & Co, 1928).

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 6.

[4] Ibid., p. 388.

[5] Ibid., p. 302.

[6] Ibid., p. 389.

[7] Ibid., p. 390.

[8] Ibid., pp. 362-3, 396, 416.

[9] Hence, Thornton believes neither Liberalism nor Socialism offer an ultimate political solution for humanity.

[10] Ibid., p. 374.

[11] Ibid., p. 390.

[12] This is why Thornton thinks both the individualistic psychological analogy (God and his Word) and the social analogy (Father and Son) for the Trinity found in Christian tradition are both legitimate. Ibid., Ch XI, especially 316.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Jeff Boldt is a professor of theology at the Alexandria School of Theology.

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Jon Mittelstadt
6 years ago

Please share more of this insightful reflection on Thornton, to my view it’s much needed in our society that at times prefers an impersonal and abstract politics. Thanks!