A Response to William Lane Craig and James White Regarding Divine Simplicity

by Brian Huffling

Recently William Lane Craig posted about divine simplicity on his website. Adam Tucker of Southern Evangelical Seminary and I published a podcast in response. Craig then published a podcast in response to that. A few days later James White made a podcast agreeing with Craig’s objections to simplicity. While I have already responded to Craig’s specific objections to simplicity (here and here), I thought it might be pertinent to do so again to address the more recent discussions concerning both him and White. My intention is not to respond to every point, but to respond to the main issues that Craig and White level at simplicity.

In our podcast, I stated that Craig’s description of divine simplicity was accurate but that the implications he sees from the doctrine were not. In his Time and Eternity, Craig says that if simplicity were true, then God “does not literally love, know, or cause His creatures” (30). Such is a strange thing to say since no one who holds to divine simplicity says that God cannot do such things. The reason Craig makes this remarkable statement is because he notes Aquinas’ teaching that if God is simple, he cannot stand in any real relations to the world (such relations would make God dependent on the world, which is what Aquinas wants to deny).

However, Craig believes that to love, know, or cause things, the creator must be related to the world. While Aquinas does claim that God is not really related, he does not mean he has no relation in the sense that Craig maintains. All that Aquinas means is that God is not dependent on the world for anything. We are dependently related to him, but he is not so related to us. But nothing could be clearer in Aquinas’ writings that God is the cause of all that exists besides himself. The same could be said about him knowing and loving.

So, Aquinas thinks that God is causally related, knows, and loves. However, such relations do not incur dependency. (See this article for a discussion of relations and how God is and is not related to the world, especially p. 27ff.)

A major issue Craig and I have is our different views of how language relates to God. We were on a panel on this topic in 2018 and much of the discussion revolved around the issue of language and God (religious epistemology). Craig’s view is that language is univocal, or has the same meaning between two terms that refer to God and creatures. I, on the other hand, argue that our language is analogical. For example, when Craig says that God knows something or has power, he thinks there is mainly, if not only, a quantitative difference between God and us. On an analogical view, the meanings of the words are not the same since what is being referred to is not the same. For example, humans know via our physical senses in a passive and discursive way. However, God, if he is Pure Act (pure being), infinite, and perfect, cannot know discursively or passively. Following Aquinas, I argue that God knows all of his effects because he is the cause of all his effects and can know them by knowing himself (see my article on this topic).

One of the objections Craig continues to raise is the notion that if simplicity is true, then God cannot have distinct attributes. For example, he says given divine simplicity, God has no specific attributes such as omnipotence or omniscience. They would both be the same with no distinction between them at all. However, since being omnipotent is not the same as being omniscient, then God has distinct attributes, and thus, simplicity must be false. It is regarding this point that James White states his surprising agreement with Craig. White states,

“As Aquinas evidently takes this, this results in the idea that you cannot discuss the attributes of God in a way that would make them different from one another because that then becomes parts which denies the simplicity of God. So, his omniscience is his omnipresence . . . you can’t distinguish them . . . and I’m like . . . and basically Craig was saying that doesn’t make any sense, and I’m sitting there going, yeah, he’s right, it doesn’t make any sense. And yet that’s this classical theism stuff that’s being presented now and it’s Aquinas’s formulation.”

Such objections have been around a long time, which is why Craig and White’s promulgating it is so disappointing. Actually, Aquinas anticipated this problem/objection in his own day (the 13th century!). He writes:

“For the idea signified by the name is the conception in the intellect of the thing signified by the name. But our intellect, since it knows God from creatures, in order to understand God, forms conceptions proportional to the perfections flowing from God to creatures, which perfections pre-exist in God unitedly and simply, whereas in creatures they are received, divided and multiplied. As, therefore, to the different perfections of creatures there corresponds one simple principle represented by different perfections of creatures in a various and manifold manner, so also to the various and multiplied conceptions of our intellect there corresponds one altogether simple principle, according to these conceptions, imperfectly understood.” (Summa Theologiae I. 13. 4.)

(Another place Aquinas writes about this issue is Summa Contra Gentiles 1.31.)

What this means is that we as humans know things through our senses (and intellect)—we know material things directly. But we don’t know God directly. We know him (as Paul says in Romans 1) through nature. All things we know directly are composed of various parts and attributes. We don’t know anything directly that is immaterial or simple. We reason to our knowledge of God. (Of course, God can reveal himself directly to people in various ways, I am simply speaking of the typical way people know God.)

Aquinas is explaining that while we know God via composed things, that doesn’t make him composed. But it does mean that we pick out various attributes (or as Aquinas calls them, “names”) one at a time. An analogy sometimes used to illustrate this is a single beam of white light going through a prism and various colors being singled out on the other side. All of the colors are present in the white light but the prism displays them. Likewise, all of the attributes we talk about with God (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.) are all really attributes of God, but we know them separately and distinctly because that’s how our minds work. However, in God they all refer to the undifferentiated unity of God. So, omniscience is not omnipresence in the way that we understand them or define them. But in God, they both refer to God’s undifferentiated being. In short, Thomists don’t deny the attributes of God. We clearly affirm them, and their plurality, but the latter is in our minds only.

The real issue with both Craig and White is not that they don’t agree with (Thomistic) simplicity; rather, it is they are making objections to the doctrine that have already been brought up, and brought up almost a millennium ago by Aquinas himself. If one is going to object to such a doctrine, which is fine to do, the academic and honest thing to do is to at least explain that Aquinas responded to this very objection. Then, the objector can explain why he thinks Aquinas’ responses to such objections fail. People like Craig and White who have large followings owe their listeners and followers at least that much. Chances are, their followers are going to take what they say for granted and not look into it themselves. Unfortunately, it seems Craig and White have not looked into it in much detail either, or at least they don’t acknowledge that this very objection (and others like it such as the so-called modal collapse) has been raised and answered by the very person they are objecting against.

Originally published here.

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