Simply Divine?

By Shannon Eugene Byrd

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March 15, 2017

As an aspiring theologian I desire knowledge of God’s nature. I also aspire to gain a proper understanding of foundational Christian teachings on the nature of God. Given this goal, a great deal of my apologetics and philosophical journey has been researching the attributes of God. Not only do I strive to attain justified true beliefs regarding God’s character, but I want to grasp His relationship with His creation and His actions in creation.

A couple of years ago, I was reading an article on divine simplicity, by Eleonore Stump. To be honest it left me with nagging questions such as, “How is God identical with his attributes?” and “How can God be triune yet, not composed of parts?” According to divine simplicity, God is radically different from any creature in that he is devoid of any sort of composition or complexity, whether it be physical or metaphysical. Basically, on this view, God is not composed of parts.

For a while I thought I just wasn’t comprehending the doctrine, but when I took it back up again I realized that my initial questions were some of the most hotly debated issues over divine simplicity. What I have discovered is that a full-blown doctrine of divine simplicity as espoused by many Thomists is not compatible with the doctrine of God that is revealed in Scripture. The biblical God seems to have sovereignty over creation and freedom whether to create or not to create. This core element is missing in the doctrine of divine simplicity. Or so it seems to me. 

While researching this doctrine again, something just didn’t add up. I began formulating the following syllogism known as the CASA Argument. If it is sound it demonstrates why a full-blown doctrine of divine simplicity is not compatible with a maximally great being (God). For instance, on divine simplicity, a simple God lacks potential, all of his attributes are identical to one another and identical to God’s essence or existence. All of his actions are identical to one another such that there is one act. So all of God’s attributes and actions are identical to his essence. This is what divine simplicity holds to, and this is what I find deeply troubling. If my CASA argument stands then the Classical Theist’s house will come crumbling down.

Before looking at the argument, we must understand its assumptions. Christian theologians overwhelmingly affirm several things about the existence and nature of God, and the modal status of the universe:

A1) God’s existence is necessary.

A2) God is free, he could have created a different world, or no world at all.

A3) The universe is contingent.

The following assumptions are what divine simplicity theologians hold to:

(A4) God’s attributes are identical to his essence/existence.

(A5) God cannot have any temporal or spatial parts.

With these assumptions in mind, I believe there is a problem with the doctrine of Divine Simplicity (DDS). Consider the following:

Complicated Anti-Simplicity Argument (CASA)

1.If God could have created a different world, then God has unactualized potential.

2. If God has unactualized potential, then God’s act in creating the actual world was contingent.

3. If God’s act in creating the actual world was contingent, then God’s knowledge of the actual world was contingent.

4. If God’s existence is identical with his knowledge and his knowledge of the actual world is contingent, then God is contingent.

5. God is not contingent.

Therefore,

God is not identical with his knowledge of the actual world. [from 4, 5]

What this argument seeks to demonstrate is that a fundamental tenet of the doctrine of divine simplicity is false. God cannot be identical with his attributes. In order for the Thomist to defeat the argument, he or she will have to demonstrate that its formulation is invalid or that its premise(s) are not true.

Premise 1

Many Thomists will take issue with premise 1. I could easily see this as the most controversial premise of the entire argument since many posit that God could not have created a different world. Instead, many claim that God could only create the actual world.

Eleonore Stump says,

Thomas Aquinas, for example denies that God has any intrinsic accidental attributes, he does not mean that God is the same in every possible world in which he exists. For much of the medieval period, modalities were not thought of in terms of sameness or difference across possible worlds but rather in terms of branching timelines of the actual world. So, for example, although Aquinas sees God’s not creating as logically possible, God’s creating is none the less not an accident of God’s but is rather necessary to him — in the sense that there is no branch of this world’s timeline on which not willing to create is correctly ascribable to God.

With Stump’s comments in mind, premise 1 shouldn’t be that controversial to the Thomist, and that denying it would be due to a misunderstanding of what Aquinas conveyed.

Now, if someone wants to deny premise (1) it comes with a very high cost—modal collapse. Denying the first premise is the same as denying God’s freedom and the notion that God was free with respect to creating or not creating has a long history in Christian theology. If one denies premise (1), they are saying that this world is not contingent, but rather, that it is necessary! This means that God could not have created a different world. It seems to me that denying the first premise comes at the cost of this world becoming necessary just as God is a necessary being. This leads to a host of other problems as well. Sin and evil would be necessary, Christ’s incarnation would be necessary, you and I would be necessary. Surely no one would want to affirm these.

Premise 2

What do I mean by saying God has potential? Basically, ff God had the freedom to not create this world, then he had potentiality. Potentially, God could not have created this world. And if that is the case, then God’s act in creating this universe was a contingent act, and he could have chosen to create a different world or not to create at all. He was free to choose in a libertarian sense.

The theory of Divine simplicity denies that God has any potential whatsoever, and it affirms that God is pure actuality. Yet when followed to its logical end, this leads to the world being necessary as well. Norman Geisler says,

“Pure actuality, then, is that which is (existence) with no possibility to not exist or to be anything other than it is—existence, pure and simple. Pure actuality has no potential for nonexistence, and it has no potential for change.”

Thus, according to Geisler, God cannot change, he cannot be composed of parts and he cannot move from potential to actual. God just is pure act. Since God cannot change, his action to create cannot change. Since God’s existence is necessary, and his act is identical to his existence, his act is necessary. That means his action to create the universe is necessary. That means that this universe exists necessarily and you exist just as necessarily as God does. So, on this Thomistic view, God is not free with respect to creation, and God is not sovereign over it.

Much like denying premise (1), denying the second premise comes at a very high cost philosophically and theologically. One is left with a God that cannot undergo any sort of change, and a necessary creation. But Christianity assumes that creation is contingent. So the Thomist must admit that creation is contingent on pain of denying basic Christian assumptions.

Premise 3

It follows that if God’s act in creating the actual world was a contingent act, then his knowledge of the actual world was contingent as well. Why? Well, if God created a different world, then the content of his knowledge would then be different. He would then possess the knowledge that this world is not the actual world and that the other world is the actual world. Thus, his knowledge is contingent and not necessary.

If his knowledge of the actual world was necessary, it would only be so because this world was necessary. Like the two previous premises, denying this one comes at a hefty price. One I hope no one is willing to pay.

Premise 4

Other than premise (1), this is probably the most controversial premise in the argument. As R. T. Mullins said, “. . . premise 4 has bite.”

One thing to understand is that Divine Simplicity makes a lot of identity statements. God does not possess attributes; rather God is his attributes. So, God does not possess knowledge, rather God’s knowledge is identical to his being. This causes a great problem for the divine simplicity theorist. If God is identical to his knowledge, and his knowledge is contingent, then God is a contingent being.

It seems to me that there is no way of avoiding this without postulating that God’s knowledge of the actual world is necessary just as God himself is necessary.

William Lane Craig states:

“. . . if God is identical with his essence, then God cannot know or do anything different from what he knows and does. He can have no contingent knowledge or action, for everything about him is essential to him. But in that case all modal distinctions collapse and everything becomes necessary.”

R. T. Mullins argues along the same lines:

. . . divine simplicity is not compossible with God’s aseity. Further, this modal collapse from divine simplicity eradicates the distinction between the God of Christian theism and the God of panentheism. The difference is supposed to be that the Christian God can exist without creation, and that His nature does not depend upon creation. But divine simplicity pushes us to a modal collapse where God must necessarily exist with creation in order to be who He is.

So, again the cost of denying the premise is Philosophically and theologically expensive. I suppose one could attempt to avoid the premise by allowing that God is not identical with his knowledge, but then we would just be restating what the conclusion of the argument says and the one contending the premise would not be holding to divine simplicity anymore as God would then possess metaphysical “parts.”

Premise 5

This premise is an essential belief to Christian theism, especially if one is aware of St. Anselm’s Perfect Being Theology. This is most likely the least controversial premise in this argument. Christian philosophers and theologians will affirm this premise without hesitation. Denying this premise is the same as saying, “God is contingent.” I do not know of any Christian philosopher or theologian who would be willing to make this step.

Conclusion

It logically follows from premise 4 and 5 that God is not identical with his knowledge of the actual world. If the argument’s premises are true and the form is valid, this conclusion follows necessarily and this is significant because it is the outright denial of divine simplicity; God is not identical with his knowledge. This signifies that God is a substance that possesses a complex set of essential properties that are not identical with each other. This same sort of argument could also be reformulated for a number of God’s attributes leading to the same conclusion, that God is not identical with his attributes, rather, they are something he possesses.

Besides my CASA argument, there are more reasons to reject the full-blown notion of God’s simplicity. For one, the God of Aquinas is not personal and as such is more akin to Eastern pantheism, Hinduism, and Islam. Much more could be said here, but suffice for now, I think the CASA stands and demonstrates that Divine Simplicity is incoherent, at least as Thomists articulate it.


Notes

Special thanks to R. T. Mullins for confirming the validity of the argument and proofreading this article as well.


About the Author

Shannon grew up in Liberty, South Carolina. At the age of 19 he joined the Air Force and entered basic military training one week after the September 11th attacks on the Twin towers. Since graduating tech school, he has worked as an Aircraft technician. In 2012 he graduated Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a Bachelors of Science in Technical Management. Around his last year at Embry-Riddle Shannon began feel called to study the Bible and Theology in depth. He enrolled at SouthWestern Assembly of God University (SAGU) and graduated in 2015 with a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. Upon graduating Shannon began studying more rigorously than before. He often quibbles “if there is one thing I learned in universities, it’s how to do research.” Shannon enjoys teaching theology at his local church and defending his faith from internet atheists using precise reasoning. His main vocation with FreeThinking Ministries is research and either writing or contributing to articles.
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About the Author

By Shannon Eugene Byrd