Dr. Brian Huffling
Director of Ph.D. Program, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Theology
Dr. Brian Huffling’s research interests include: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, and general issues in Apologetics and Biblical studies. See his personal blog here.
A few weeks ago Dr. William Lane Craig joined Bishop Robert Barron to discuss divine simplicity. The recording can be found here. (Craig’s remarks start around 26:22.) Bishop Barron explained and defended simplicity. A brief discussion on what divine simplicity is can be found in this previous blog article.
In that post I said that simplicity is the most important and controversial divine attribute. Further, while simplicity has enjoyed wide (for over a millennium nearly universal) acceptance in the past, Craig rightly claims that most Christian theologians and philosophers reject it today. In his view, it “is not whether God is simple, but whether divine simplicity is best understood along Thomistic lines.” (Later Craig will redefine simplicity.) While many theologians and philosophers have held to simplicity, Thomas Aquinas was more explicit in his explanation of what simplicity is and what followed from the doctrine than many of his predecessors (and successors). With this in mind, let’s look at some of Craig’ objections.
Divine Simplicity Is Unbiblical and Based in Paganism
At the onset of the debate, Bishop Barron gives a positive case for divine simplicity according to Aquinas. During his opening remarks, he notes 3 objections that normally arise to the doctrine. At the beginning of his rebuttal, Craig agrees with the 3 typical objections that Bishop Barron discusses, noting: “I must confess that I could not agree more with the objector that drawing far more on pagan philosophical sources than on Scriptural witness, Aquinas has presented a deeply distorted and hopelessly abstract notion of God more akin to a Buddhist abyss, or a Hindu absolute than to the living, personal, and very particular God of the Bible.” Thus according to Craig, the Bible offers no support for divine simplicity, saying the claim that Thomas and his followers use from Exodus 3:14 that God is Pure Act is eisegesis. Rather, Craig argues it is taken from pagan sources such as the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus. Further, Craig asserts the doctrine has the “terrible consequence” that God’s attributes “are annihilated by divine simplicity” since “the pure act of being is not delimited by any essence. God becomes an unintelligible blank.” Further, “God is no longer religiously accessible, except through mystical experience.” The use of analogous language entails that “God is not literally personal, nor does he love you, nor is he active in the world, for the pure act of being has no properties and stands in no real relations.”
The “analogous language” to which Craig is referring has to do with how we talk about God. There are three options for how language relates to God: (1) in a univocal way; (2) in an equivocal way; and (3) in an analogous way. Univocal language is when the meaning between two referents is the same. For example, when I say the sun is bright and when I say a lamp is bright, I mean the same thing, although there is an obvious difference in degree. Language is equivocal when the meaning between two terms is different. For example, the word ‘bank’ is used equivocally when referring to a financial institution as opposed to the side of a river. Language is analogous when words have both a similarity and difference regarding the meaning. For example, when I say “my cheeseburger is good,” and “my shoes are good,” the word ‘good’ is used in an analogous way, i.e., there is a similarity between ‘good’ regarding ‘cheeseburger’ and ‘shoes’. However, they are not good in the same way.
Divine Simplicity Makes God A Property
Craig states the objection that simplicity “falsely makes God a property.” Craig is not actually making the case that God is a property, not here anyway. He is rather stating a usual objection that if God is simple, then he is what he has. Thus, if he has a property, he just is a property, which is absurd. Craig quotes Bishop Barron’s response to this objection, which is to say that God has no properties (as opposed to attributes). For Craig, “that is precisely the problem. The pure act of being is inconceivable because it has no properties. We really have no idea what we are talking about.”
Divine Simplicity Causes A Modal Collapse
Craig then argues that the Thomistic version of “simplicity brings about a modal collapse.” Since, says Craig, God is simple across all possible worlds, modal distinctions collapse, making essentially only one possible world. God only has necessary knowledge since everything about him is necessary. “Thus divine simplicity leads to an extreme fatalism, according to which everything that happens does so with logical necessity.” Craig notes that Bishop Barron attempts to defeat this objection by pointing to the Thomistic doctrine that says God is not really related to creatures, even though they are related to him. Craig notes, “The problem with this doctrine is that it makes the existence of creatures inexplicable. Since God is absolutely the same in a possible world in which no creatures exist, as he is in a world chalk full of creatures, the explanation of the difference cannot be found in God. But neither can it be found in creatures, for they come too late in the order of explanation to account for why they exist or not. It follows that on Thomism, there just is no explanation of the existence of creatures, or the differences between possible worlds, which seems absurd.”
Where Did Things Go Wrong?
According to Craig, the reason this discussion of simplicity is wrongheaded is because of Aquinas’ view of a real distinction between essence and existence. Why think things have a real distinction? According to Bishop Barron this is so because we can think about a thing’s nature without it entailing its existence. However, Craig says that this gives rise only to a conceptual distinction, not a real one.
Redefinition of Divine Simplicity
Craig asks how we should understand divine simplicity. He says, “We reject constituent ontologies. We should not think of things as metaphysically composed in any way. In this sense, everything is simple. But, there are still positive predications true of them, including God. If we want, we can strengthen divine simplicity by adding that God is not composed of separable parts. That suffices for a biblical and philosophically intelligible doctrine of divine simplicity.”
Finally, Craig argues that the Thomistic understanding is not essential to Catholic doctrine and that Catholics should feel comfortable embracing a more biblical view of simplicity that is not as radical as the one espoused by Thomas.
Response to the Claim That Divine Simplicity Is Unbiblical and Based in Paganism
There is both truth and error in this objection. I tend to agree with Craig that the Bible does not explicitly teach that God is simple in the Thomistic understanding. But why should it? It’s not a philosophy book or even a strict theology book in the sense that we use in seminary. It is a collection of books written to God’s people. Exodus 3:14 likely is a general statement to Moses of the existential sense and not a strict philosophical sense. Having said that, nothing in the Bible is contrary to the notion of a robust (Thomistic) view of divine simplicity. Further, the Bible affirms that what we know about God comes from the created order (Romans 1:20). This of course does not mean we don’t know God through the Scriptures; obviously we do. However, again, the Bible is not a philosophy or theology book. It is not about metaphysics. However, general revelation does give us a more metaphysical view of God. Further, since the Bible is replete with figurative language, we should not be surprised to find highly figurative and non-literal statements about God, e.g. statements that describe God as having bodily parts.
What is false about this objection is that it is a clear case of the genetic fallacy. Saying that it has similarities, even roots, in “paganism” does not make the doctrine false. Many doctrines about God held by classical theists (Christians) are also shared by pagans (e.g., Christians and pagans held that God, or the gods, were in time). Further, there are hardly any ubiquitous views in Greek philosophy on such matters. If divine simplicity enjoys acceptance in Greek thought so does the rejection of divine simplicity. Certainly there were Greek thinkers who viewed God (the gods) as composed. Thus, the Thomist could respond that the view of divine composition is rooted in pagan thinking. (For an excellent treatment of how Greek thinking does not enjoy unanimity in these matters, especially as it relates to divine impassibility, see The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought, by Paul L. Gavrilyuk.) Further, one could argue the Bible does not explicitly teach that God is composed.
Craig also admonishes that the doctrine has the “terrible consequence” that God’s attributes “are annihilated by divine simplicity” since “the pure act of being is not delimited by any essence. God becomes an unintelligible blank.” The notion that God’s attributes are annihilated by divine simplicity is anything but obvious. An entire tradition of thought for well over a millennium held both to simplicity and to the idea that God has attributes. It is true, that if God is simple, then he does not have multiple aspects of his being that we can point to as we can point to different parts. God does not have properties. He does, however, have attributes. The difference between a property and an attribute becomes clear when we remember that Aquinas’ doctrine of simplicity is rooted in Aristotelian metaphysics. In my earlier post on simplicity, I discussed various ways in which material beings can be composed. One way was to be composed of substance and accident. Accidents in this regard are properties that inhere in a substance. This “inhering in” relation is one of potency to act. Since God, for Aquinas, is simple, he cannot have such properties. He does, for Aquinas, have attributes. Unlike properties that inhere in a substance, like red in a ball, attributes are not things that inhere in a being. Attributes in this sense are ways we talk about God without committing to property talk. We don’t say God has the property of wisdom; rather, we say that God is wise. It is a quality or characteristic of the divine essence. However, given simplicity, whatever God has, he is. So really, he does not have wisdom in the sense of possessing some property; he is wisdom. He is identical to it. He does not have being, he is being. He does not have power, he is power.
It is true, though, in a sense, that for Thomists the divine essence is not delimited by an essence. God is the only being whose existence just is his essence. Being infinite, he is not delimited by anything. Rather than seeing this as an objection, Thomists see this as a positive aspect or perfection of God. What would it even mean for God to be delimited by an essence? Would this not mean there would by definition be limits on him?
Nothing in simplicity necessitates us thinking about God as an unintelligible blank. The problem many have in this regard is if God does not seem like something familiar to us from the world of composed things with properties, then we don’t have something from this world to tether our understanding of him. Thus, we can’t know what God is and can’t talk about him intelligibly. But the doctrine of simplicity does not lead to a problem of God being unintelligible in the sense that we can’t make meaningful and true statements about him. We certainly say things that are intelligible and true. However, simplicity does negate many things of God that we see in nature, such as he is not composed, physical, finite, temporal, changing, passible, and the like. This kind of being is certainly not what we are used to. So it is no surprise that Thomists say that we cannot know what God is exactly in his nature. We can’t experience God the way we can experience physical things in the world. Our epistemological make up is designed to know physical things. But, as Paul says in Romans 1, we can reason from creation to the Creator.
Since we can’t know God directly, we cannot know his essence (of pure existence). Further, he is infinite. Recall the above discussion about analogous language. Things are not ‘good’ in the same ways. Cheeseburgers (hungry yet?) are not good in the same way as shoes, sunsets, books, or people. How do we know that? Because we know what those things are. We have experience of them and thus know their natures. We can say that these things exist in a species, or class of things (at least for some examples), and the members, or individuals in those species are either good examples or not of what it means to be a cheeseburger, shoe, book, etc. But that’s because we know their natures. However, we don’t know God’s nature as we don’t have direct access to him and we can’t comprehend infinite being. So we can say things about God that are positive and true without having comprehension of what we are saying. We know that God is good (metaphysically). We know he has perfections. But exactly what pure, infinite, unlimited goodness is . . . we have no idea. And as finite creatures, we can’t.
However, to say things like “God is not literally personal, nor does he love you, nor is he active in the world” because we must use analogous language is false. God certainly is personal in that he has the perfections of persons: will and intellect. And of course he loves you. Further, he is indeed active in the world. Such notions are clearly taught in the Thomistic corpus. It is difficult to see how someone could read Thomas and think that he teaches God doesn’t love or is not active. Remember, he is pure act! He is the most active being. He is certainly more active than a composed being ever could be. Using analogous language is necessary to talk about a being about which we cannot possibly understand in his essence as infinite being. Univocal and equivocal language do not work since the former only makes God different in degree (God is “x” just like us, just infinitely) and the latter doesn’t tell us anything about God.
Response to the Claim That Divine Simplicity Makes God A Property
It is important to note Craig is not making the assertion in this discussion that God is a property if simplicity is true. (For arguments to that effect, see Does God Have A Nature, by Alvin Plantinga.) Rather, he is asserting if God has no properties, which is what Bishop Barron is asserting, then we can’t now anything about God. The response to this objection was really handled in the previous section. Suffice it to say that it is true that Thomists assert the infinite, unlimited being of God is inconceivable in the sense that we have no direct knowledge of God’s nature. However, it would be nice for someone who thinks he knows what infinite, unlimited being is to please inform the rest of us, as we are curious.
Response to the Claim That Divine Simplicity Brings About A Modal Collapse
Remember Craig’s next objection: The Thomistic version of “simplicity brings about a modal collapse.” Since, says Craig, God is simple across all possible worlds, modal distinctions collapse, making essentially only one possible world. God only has necessary knowledge since everything about him is necessary. “Thus divine simplicity leads to an extreme fatalism, according to which everything that happens does so with logical necessity.”
The problem for Craig is not merely that God is simple but that only one effect is logically possible since God’s knowledge is necessary. (It is noteworthy that even granting Craig’s objection, which I do not, it does not show simplicity is false, just that fatalism is true.)
For Thomas, things are not possible because of possible world semantics or the nature of the effects (except to say some things are not possible in themselves); rather, a being’s possibility is found in the will and intellect of God.
Craig’s objection is not new. In fact, Thomas both states and answers the objection in the 13th century. (From a scholarly point of view, it is disappointing that Craig does not acknowledge this fact. His listeners, if they don’t know Thomas, would not know that he has answered this objection, even if Craig is not satisfied with the answers. To be fair, Craig is attempting to respond to Bishop Barron’s response that God is not really related to creatures; however, he is still making this objection.)
Thomas declares that God creates from his will and intellect. Since God is infinite, he can create anything he wills, as long as the effect is not a logical contradiction, such as a square circle. Since some things don’t exist that could exist, this shows that God creates from his will and not of necessity (Summa Contra Gentiles, 2.23).
Further, Aquinas states, “It was shown above that the divine intellect knows an infinite number of things. Now God brings things into being by the knowledge of His intellect. Therefore the causality of the divine intellect is not confined to a finite number of effects” (SCG 2.26). In other words, since God’s creative power via his will and intellect is infinite, he is not limited to creating any set of or number of effects (as long as the effect is possible in itself).
Aquinas further admonishes, “If the causality of the divine intellect were confined to certain effects, as though it produced them of necessity, this would be in reference to the things which it brings into being. But this is impossible; for it was shown above that God understands even those things that never are, nor shall be, nor have been. Therefore God does not work by necessity of His intellect or knowledge” (SCG, 2.26). What Aquinas is saying here is that if there was some kind of necessity concerning the creation of certain effects, since it is the case that there are beings that could exist that don’t, this necessity of creation would have something to do with the effects. This is not the case since, as already mentioned, since some things were created and others not, the reason must be the divine will and intellect. Hence, God does not create some effects from necessity.
Aquinas concludes, “Hereby we set aside the opinion of certain philosophers who say that from the very fact that God understands Himself, this particular disposition of things flows from Him necessarily: as though He did not give each thing its limits, and all things their disposition by His own counsel” (SCG, 2.26).
The above should show that Craig’s argument for a modal collapse fails. Not only this, but Aquinas addressed this objection in the 13th century, with no mention from Craig in this symposium, even to reject Aquinas’ answers.
The final issue regarding Craig’s objections has to do with his response to the Thomistic notion of God not being really related to the world. This, says Craig, is Bishop Barron’s reply to the modal collapse (even though we have just seen Aquinas’ own response). Craig insists, “The problem with this doctrine is that it makes the existence of creatures inexplicable. Since God is absolutely the same in a possible world in which no creatures exist, as he is in a world chalk full of creatures, the explanation of the difference cannot be found in God. But neither can it be found in creatures, for they come too late in the order of explanation to account for why they exist or not. It follows that on Thomism, there just is no explanation of the existence of creatures, or the differences between possible worlds, which seems absurd.”
It might sound odd for the non-Thomist to hear that God is not really related to creatures. But, to be really related for Aquinas, following Aristotle, is to have an inherent accident in a substance. A father is really related to his son and thus has the inherent accident of fatherhood. But to have an accident in this sense is to be composed. Further, this attribute is only inherent in the father because of the existence of the son, which makes the father’s relation dependent. This dependency is what Thomas rejects. In other words, for Thomas, God is not dependent on creation.
However, this does not have the absurd entailment that Craig asserts, namely that God is not the explanation of the existence of creatures. Nothing could be more clear in Thomas’ writing that he believes God is the efficient cause of all finite being. All Aquinas is saying here, is that God is not composed, nor is he dependent on creation in any way.
Given that Aquinas is one of the most celebrated philosophers and thinkers in the history of humanity, even if he was not clear as to what he meant by saying God is not really related to the world, it would be wise not to assert that he is making a grossly obvious contradiction by maintaining God is creator but not really related to the world. All of this is enhanced given that the discussion of real relations being denied of God is found in SCG, 2.12 with chapters 13 and 14 dealing with how God is related to creation, followed by chapter 15 titled “That God is to All Things the Cause of Being”! So, it could not be the case that Aquinas made separate and contradictory claims in distant parts of his works. These chapters follow each other. This should at least give pause for the principle of charity.
For the sake of space, I am not going to discuss the real distinction here. Craig says this is the place at which Thomas got on the wrong road. If you are interested, I discussed the real distinction in my earlier article on simplicity.
Craig’s solution is to redefine simplicity. He first wants to reject all constituent ontologies. “We should not think of things as metaphysically composed in any way,” he says. (I thought he had problems with simplicity, for this is just what Aquinas says about God.) “In this sense,” he continues, “everything is simple.” This has at least two problems. First, it seems fairly clear, for most I guess, that material things have different aspects (parts) to their being. Things change. In order for things to change they must first exist (be in act) and have the potential for change (potency). Thus, things must be metaphysically composed of act and potency. To say that things exist is just what Aquinas means by things being in act. Further, if things don’t have the potential to change, then change is impossible. Existing things change; therefore, they have act and potency. But act and potency are just different constituent parts to their being.
Second, saying all things are simple blurs the distinction between the Creator and the created. This move makes God different in degree but not in kind. The real distinction and the doctrine of simplicity maintain a clear Creator/creature distinction.
Last, Craig states, “If we want, we can strengthen divine simplicity by adding that God is not composed of separable parts.” However, I find it a curious way to strengthen a doctrine by denying it and then redefining it in an admittedly weaker way.
Craig’s objections to divine simplicity have been presented. None of them here are new, and Aquinas has dealt with many such objections in his works, even though there is often no response to his answers, even to reject them. I have offered responses to Craig’s objections. I believe that the responses defeat the objections.
In conclusion, the doctrine of divine simplicity is incredibly important. If affirmed, it takes one down the path of classical theism. If denied, it takes one down the path of process theology, which rejects the classical view of God. There is no middle ground. For, if God is not simple, then he is composed. If he is composed, he can change. If he changes, as Craig maintains he does at least in some ways (going from an eternal being to an omnitemporal one, being passible, etc.), then he is in a process. While I am not saying Craig’s view of God is identical with process theism, I do believe rejecting these classical doctrines is a step in that direction.
I encourage the reader to explore this issue in detail. Read Aquinas. Read Craig. Be informed on this important doctrine. As my previous blog on the topic says, it is the most important attribute of God.