A Rather Simple Concern

This is a post about the doctrine of divine simplicity – or, more precisely, a meta-post on the doctrine of divine simplicity. I’m not going to defend or critique any given model of simplicity (there are plenty of models, critiques and defences) but I’m going to try and unearth that which the doctrine of divine simplicity is concerned with from a theological standpoint. The point here is to identify why one would want to hold to simplicity – in order to move forward in a constructive (or de-constructive) way.

The overall thesis that I want to unearth is that the doctrine of divine simplicity is fundamentally a theological doctrine, and not only a philosophical construct. There is a dialectic and interplay between positive and negative import here. There is positive import because such a doctrine tells us true things about God, what God is, by way of negation. The priority here must be conceded to the negative, however, because my assertion in this post is that though there is positive import for a doctrine of simplicity, it is primarily a negative doctrine. The doctrine of divine simplicity, I’m going to argue, is primarily concerned with guarding against idolatry, and any doctrine of simplicity that isn’t (say, a more purely ‘philosophical’ doctrine) doesn’t fit the parameters for a proper doctrine. I’ll argue also that simplcity is a way of identifying God, and that any way of identifying God is concerned with guarding against idolatry. Stephen Holmes notes that just such an identification lies at the heart of simplicity:

‘”Simplicity” is, traditionally, a central divine attribute that claims God is in no way composite or divided. This conditions the accounts of all the other divine attributes, which are clearly multiple. So we claim that God is variously good, just, loving, omnipotent, eternal, and so on, whereas the doctrine of divine simplicity insists that God is in fact just God…’ (‘Divine Attributes’, in ‘Mapping Modern Theology’, eds. Kapic and McCormack, p. 62)

As I said above, I’m not going to go into the gritty details of every formulation of simplicity. There’s no shortage of books and articles on the topic, but for my money, Nicholas Wolterstorff’s essay on the topic does a lot in the way of clearing up why modern criticisms of the doctrine tend to miss the boat.

In ‘The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas’, Etienne Gilson spends several pages laying out Thomas’s doctrine of simplicity. Aquinas’s doctrine is fairly well known, but Gilson identifies a key point where Aquinas argues that God is not a body:

‘Now, we have shown that God is not composite; He is consequently not a body; and therewith all the idolatrous pagans are refuted who imagined God in a bodily form, as well as the Manicheans and Greek philosophers who substituted celestial bodies for the elements for God.’ (p. 101)

Thus, by identifying God as non-composite and therefore as non-body, idolatry is, if not explicitly, implicitly refuted. However, there is more to simplicity than mere non-composition. Perhaps the most important element is God’s non-contingency, or his not being dependent on anything for his existence, which contrasts sharply with our experience of created being, all of which is contingent and non-necessary. Christopher Franks draws out how Aquinas’s distinction between existence and essence relate to this:

‘Thomas’s fundamental insight into the discontinuity between God and the creature is expressed in his famous rejection of any distinction between existence and essence in God. His point is to shake up our normal assumption that “being” is a sort of given substratum onto which forms are added, bringing perfections with them. Burrell points out that when Aquinas interprets esse in terms of act, essence becomes not the perfecting factor but the limiting factor. Therefore, in Carlo Leget’s words, “esse as actuality contains every possible perfection and the fact that a substance does not possess every perfection must be ascribed to the limitations of its essence”. A reversal is worked here whereby our existence, which appears more sure to us, is confessed to be contingent and fragile in the face of the absolute priority of the existence of God. This does not give us some handle by which to understand God. In fact, by identifying God’s essence with esse as pure act, Thomas excludes the sorts of distinctions we would need to get a grasp on God. But this move does help us see the sort of dependence all beings have on their Creator, and thus it points in the direction of just how radically different God is from any being.’ (‘The Simplicity of the Living God’, p. 279)

This is a clear affirmation of the creature/creator distinction, and we also see that such an affirmation is built into, as it were, the doctrine of simplicity:

‘Using this notion of pure act to specify how God is incomprehensible to us is precisely what Thomas is doing in the discussion of simplicity. For Thomas, simplicity is not an attribute of a being with no distinctions. It is the necessity of denying that any of the distinctions that help us discern created realities can possibly help us when our subject is the One who is the cause of all being. Again, simplicity is a way of ensuring that the One of whom we speak is indeed the prima causa of all things. Something that does not exist, that is not “in act”, cannot bring anything about. Thus, what is only “potential” cannot bring itself about, but must be brought about by something in act. If God has any potency, God would need to be acted on by some other agent, and so would not be the ultimate cause of which Thomas is trying to speak. If this notion of actus purus in all simplicity does help us speak properly of God, then we certainly must confess that everything that is in God is God. But this is, again, simply to guarantee the proper distinction between God and the world, a distinction that reminds us that how our language refers to God remains a mystery to us.’ (p. 279)

Simplicity, then, for Aquinas, is fundamentally concerned with preserving the creature/creator distinction. Franks notes that since for Aquinas God is not a being, ‘God’s simplicity, then, is not the simplicity of a perfect being’ (p. 286). Franks finds an ally here in Karl Barth, who with his ‘wholly other’ way of thinking about God refuses as Aquinas does to map human ideas of simplicity onto God. The absolute qualitative distinction between God and creation prohibits any such idolatrous conceptual mapping. For both Aquinas and Barth, then, the affirmation of simplicity is an affirmation that God is God – and such an affirmation operates on a logic that is keen to guard against any conceptual idolatry.

In her ‘Systematic Theology’, Katherine Sonderegger draws on Aquinas as well in order to guard against idolatry:

‘That which is conceivable, the “intelligible” inhabits the intellect “by essence”, Augustine affirms – that is the force of Augustine’s reflection upon truth residing in the mind when it affirms that which is true. Perhaps unexpectedly, Thomas does not meet this Augustinian position through a direct application of his long-standing objection to a Platonic theory of forms. Rather, Thomas argues simply and profoundly that God cannot dwell in us by essence, for it is only in the blessed that God could so dwell. Death casts a line on this earth between knowledge of God under some form of negation or indirection and the full knowledge of God as He is, by his Essential Oneness. Here we see Thomas taking up the scriptural prohibition against graven image into the doctrine of the knowledge of God, or in the older and fine idiom, the doctrine of divine names.’ (p. 31, emphasis mine)

Sonderegger rightly notes just how radical Aquinas is here:

‘It is important to see how thoroughgoing, how searing Thomas really is here…we see in this article (note: Sonderegger is glossing Q3 A5) how Thomas has taken to heart Scripture’s absolute prohibition on image, likeness and form, to idols of all kinds. Those who imagine that Thomas works in some thrall to “Greek metaphysics” have not reckoned fully with this article, for here he takes up the conceptual language of metaphysics in order to set it aside, to purge and purify it.’ (p. 32)

Simplicity is, then, according to Aquinas, Gilson, Franks, Barth and Sonderegger, a smashing of the conceptual idols. If God is God, and if divine simplicity is a way of stating that God is God, then the doctrine of divine simplicity is concerned with guarding against any and all graven images, conceptual or otherwise. Simplicity draws out the radical distinction between God and creation in order guard against predicating mere human concepts of God. Perhaps I can even be a little more radical here. I stated in the opening of this post that any doctrine of simplicity that wasn’t concerned with guarding against idolatry would fall short of the criterion for a proper doctrine of simplicity. But we can see now that any doctrine of simplicity that isn’t fundamentally concerned with guarding against idolatry is, itself, a form of idolatry.


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