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Conjoined Twins and the Trinity
Can One Person be with Another, and yet be the Same Being?
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society has offered various arguments
against the Trinity generally, and in favor of the New World
Translation of John 1:1 ("and the Word was a god"),
based on what it sees as the logical inconsistency of one God subsisting
as three distinct Persons. For example:
While Trinitarians claim that Christ is Almighty God, we of course do not claim that He is the same person as the Father. The classic Trinitarian formula, Una Substantia, Tres Personae (One Substance, Three Persons), recognizes the personal distinction required by John 1:1b. We agree with the Watchtower that "someone who is with another person cannot be the same as that other person." The Watchtower has created a strawman of the Trinitarian position (since it correctly defines the Trinity on page 3 of this same publication, it appears it intended to do so). John 1:1b may contradict the strawman, but not the true doctrine of the Trinity.
Recognizing this fact, some online Jehovah's Witness apologists have finessed the Watchtower's argument in a manner similar to the following:
While this reformulation avoids the strawman fallacy, it contains two others:
The argument, as presented, is a false analogy because both Jehovah's Witnesses and Trinitarians agree that God is a unique Being. He has many characteristics that are unique to Him. Simply because they are unique does not mean that God does not have them. Thus, even if it could be demonstrated that there are no other examples of multi-personal beings in all of human experience, this fact would not logically preclude God from being multi-personal.
The argument is also an example of begging the question because it assumes what it seeks to prove: Namely, that multi-personal beings do not exist. This remainder of this article will seek to demonstrate that examples of such beings do, in fact, exist - albeit rarely. And if they do, we can offer them as counterexamples to the challenge offered by Jehovah's Witness apologists.
The terms "person" and "being" can be defined in various ways. Generally speaking, when Trinitarians speak of the Persons of the Trinity, they mean distinct "centers of consciousness." A center of consciousness is self-aware (it refers to itself as "I"); it has a mind, emotions, and a will.
When Trinitarians speak of the "being" of God, they mean God viewed as an entity. An entity differs from a person in that the former refers to manner and mode of existence and the latter to volitional and cognitive function. As humans, we are 'persons' because we are self-aware - we have minds, emotions, and wills. But we are human beings, or entities, because in addition to our consciousness, we have physical bodies of a certain size and shape; have internal organs, bones, and teeth characteristic of humans; all dictated by our uniquely human DNA.
We have certain characteristics and capacities because we are human beings; we also have certain characteristics and capacities because we are human persons. The characteristics and capacities we share as human beings may be termed generic; those that distinguish us as persons from other human persons may be termed individual. When Trinitarians speak of the Word "sharing the same nature as God," we mean that the Pre-Incarnate Son possessed all the generic characteristics of God (i.e., Deity - what makes God, God1). But we do not mean that He also shared individual characteristics with other persons in the Trinity (e.g., the Son is not equal to His Father in authority; the Father sends, the Son is sent).
If we imagine a science fiction scenario in which a scientist's mind
is removed from his body and placed in a machine which enables him to
retain full consciousness, it is debatable whether we would still
consider him a human being. True, he retains his personality (his
mind, emotions, and will), and thus - by our definition - is a human person.
But since he lacks his human form and mode of existence - again, by our definition - he is
not a human being.2
The term "conjoined twins" refers to twins whose bodies are connected in some way. Conjoined twins are rare - occurring roughly once in every 50,000 births. They are always identical: the product of a single egg that for unknown reasons fails to divide fully into separate twins during the first three weeks of gestation.
Though they share an intimacy beyond what most of us can imagine, each twin has a distinct personality. Abby wants to be a dentist; Britty dreams of piloting planes. Abby's favorite color is blue; Britty's is pink. Abby enjoys drawing; Britty loves animals. When Abby gets a question wrong in school, Britty usually gets it right ... and vice versa!
Abby and Britty are clearly two "persons," as we have defined the term, above. But in a profound sense, Abby and Britty are also one. Britty is more prone to colds and coughs than Abby, but since their circulation is linked, if Abby takes medicine, Britty's infection will go away. To their delight, the twins need only one set of vaccinations. Their two brains perform highly coordinated activities, such as walking, tying shoes, swimming, riding a bicycle, and hitting a baseball which doctors are at a loss to explain. At a more fundamental level, as conjoined twins, Abby and Britty shared a placenta and amniotic sac when they were in the womb.
Significantly, the twins sometimes use "I" to refer to themselves individually, but other times to themselves collectively.
In a very real sense, the Hensel twins may be seen as a single entity or being. Neither can survive without the other, and surgical separation is simply not possible.3 Many researchers theorize that conjoined twins arise from a single human embryo in which a malfunctioning organizer gene - nicknamed Noggin - causes multiple appendages to develop - including, in the case of the Hensels, a second head and brain.
The issue of whether conjoined twins constitute a single being has even reached the courts. In a case involving another set of conjoined twins in Manchester, England, the jury was asked to decide if the twins comprised one human being or two.4
The issue has also been addressed in religious law. A Jewish Halakhic anthology from the 16th century ruled that conjoined twins are one human being.5
Conjoined twins - especially dicephalic twins like the Hensels - may very well be examples of multi-personal entities - two persons united in a single human being.
The Trinity and Conjoined Twins
We are now in a position to answer the the question posed in the sub-title of this article: "Can one person be with another, and yet be the same being?" In the case of the Hensel twins, the answer is "Yes!" Abby can be with Britty, and yet be the same human being.
While the analogy of conjoined twins is not perfect (for starters, there are only two!), it is - I think - an apt earthly model for the Trinity. I am not suggesting that God is literally conjoined triplets, with three heads sharing a single body of Spirit. But just as conjoined twins are - at the same time - plural and one, so too is the God of the Bible.7
When describing His relationship with the Father, Jesus speaks of a profound intimacy:
Britty and Abby experience something of this same sort of intimacy with each other:
Everything Abby has is Britty's, and vice versa. Abby shares her very being with Britty, and thus is "in" her as Britty is "in" Abby. Britty cannot do something as simple to the rest of us as walk across a room without Abby's agreement (when the girls disagree on their destination, they literally go in circles). Abby and Britty are two lovely little girls - and they are, at the same time, one unique being. Their relationship with each other - an interdependence based on their unified body and a distinction based on their discreet personalities - is, as it were, a mirror dimly reflecting the relationship of the members of the Trinity:
God declares His glory in His creation (Psalm 19:1). Though creation falls far short of the reality of God, nevertheless He has provided "signposts" pointing to His grandeur. If His power is demonstrated by quasars and colliding galaxies, His beauty by sunlight refracted in morning dew, His love by the love of a child for its mother, why cannot His nature as the Triune God be reflected (in some small measure) by His creation of conjoined twins?
The Three-Headed God?
This article began with a quote from the Watchtower in which it misrepresented the Trinity. I will close with another:
Lest anyone be tempted to suggest that this article is a case in point, let me ask the following questions:
Evangelicals believe that God does not err; nothing catches Him by surprise. Conjoined twins like the Hensels are not "freaks of nature," but rather are God's creation, and as such, they declare His glory. I hope that this article can, in some small way, redeem8 the Watchtower's "three-headed God" accusation against the Trinity.
I will give the Hensel twins the last word:
"I will not be separated," says Brittany. "And I don't have two heads," says Abigail.
1. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "Deity" as:
2. Among cognitive scientists and philosophers there are two major views of what constitutes a "being" or "identity:" The Psychological View and the Organism View. The former says that some sort of psychological continuity (a mind and at least rudimentary consciousness) is required for identity; the latter that identity exists so long as the organism in question can perform certain essential life functions (such as respiration, metabolism, reproduction, etc.). In our example of the scientist with the detached mind, he is a human being according to the Psychological View and not a human being according to the Organism View. While I am proposing a definition of "being" similar to the Organism View of Identity, I do not subscribe to the essential materialism inherent in that view.
3. "Modern medical practice is to attempt often complex surgeries to separate most conjoined twins, although there is serious ethical debate on the subject, particularly when the survival of both twins is questionable. Perhaps the closest case to the Hensels in which separation was attempted is that of Eilish and Katie Holton of Ireland. Born in a configuration similar to the Hensels' but with four arms rather than three, the Holton twins were separated in 1992 at age 3 in a 15-hour operation involving 25 doctors at London's Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. Katie died of heart problems four days later" (Wallis, Claudia, "The Most Intimate Bond," Time, March 25, 1996).
4. This case involved a set of twins fused at the abdomen. Unlike the Hensels, "Jodie" and "Mary" (not their real names) shared one heart, which provided oxygen to both. Doctors concluded that if they were not separated, they could live a maximum of six months. However, if they were separated, only Jodie would live and Mary would die. Their parents would not consent to the operation. Both twins were equal in their eyes and both were deserving of love. Devout Catholics, they insisted that God willed the twins to be born the way they were and God would determine the span of their lives. However, the authorities of St. Mary's Hospital wanted to act in the best interests of the viable child. Therefore, they took the case to court to override the parent's decision. The jury determined that the twins were "two individuals of inestimable value," but also ruled that the surgery proceed. As expected, Mary died as a result.
5. Pepper 1967:133. Quoted in: Barilan, Y. Michael "Head-Counting vs. Heart-Counting: An Examination of the Recent Case of the Conjoined Twins from Malta" Perspectives in Biology and Medicine - Volume 45, Number 4, Autumn 2002, pp. 593-603.
6. Kliewer, Mary, "The Freedom of Love" (http://www.worldinvisible.com/newsltr/yr1997/jan/mary.htm, accessed 20 April, 2006), quotation marks in original.
8. I use the term in its Biblical sense of "buying back from the bondage of sin."