Perfect Being Theology, Theistic Personalism, and the Eclipse of the Apophatic

Readers of this blog will by now be well-acquainated with the term “theistic personalism.” It was coined by Brian Davies to describe what he believes to be a very different understanding of divinity, commonly advanced by analytic philosophers. He specifically names Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, perhaps the two best-known contemporary Christian philosophers on the planet. Unlike the metaphysically simple God of classical Christianity, theistic personalists begin with the notion of God as an incorporeal person. “Person” here means just what it does in our ordinary discourse—a being that possesses intelligence and will. To this divine Person we may attribute various properties, such as omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, righteousness, benevolence, and so on. These properties are typically determined by perfect-being extrapolation and a plain reading of the Holy Bible. Philosophers of the analytic school debate among themselves which properties may be properly attributed to the Deity. Does God foreknow the future, for instance? Some say yes, others say no. How can even the Creator know what hasn’t happened yet? Many theistic personalists deny divine impassibility and mutuality. “Indeed,” comments Davies,

many of them make a point of doing so. Why? Largely because they think that, if God is impassible and unchangeable, then he cannot be taken seriously as a person. The persons we call people are changed by what they encounter and discover. They are modified by other things. And, says the theistic personalist, this is how it must be with God. An impassible and unchanging God would, they argue, be lifeless. Such a God, they often add, would also not be admirable. We admire people who can be moved by tragic events. We admire people who can become elated when good things happen. And, theistic personalists sometimes say, we can admire God only if he, like admirable people, is suitably affected by the good and the bad which occurs in the world. (An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion, chap. 2, pp. 12-13).

Theistic personalists also commonly reject the  metaphysical attribute of divine simplicity, both because they deem the notion philosophically incoherent and because it ostensibly contradicts the biblical portrayal of divinity. The God of the Bible is, if nothing else, a distinct individual with distinct properties and perfections. As William Lane Craig remarks: “the doctrine of divine simplicity is one that has no biblical support at all and, in my opinion, has no good philosophical arguments in its favor.”

Classical theists wonder whether the deity of theistic personalism can be properly described as God. David B. Hart is characteristically blunt:

Many Anglophone theistic philosophers …, reared as they have been in a post-Fregean intellectual environment, have effectively broken with classical theistic tradition, adopting a style of thinking that the Dominican philosopher Brian Davies calls theistic personalism. I prefer to call it monopolytheism myself (or perhaps “mono-poly-theism”), since it seems to me to involve a view of God not conspicuously different from the polytheistic picture of the gods as merely very powerful discrete entities who possess a variety of distinct attributes that lesser entities also possess, if in smaller measure; it differs from polytheism, as far I can tell, solely in that it posits the existence of only one such being. It is a way of thinking that suggests that God, since he is only a particular instantiation of various concepts and properties, is logically dependent on some more comprehensive reality embracing both him and other beings. For philosophers who think in this way, practically all the traditional metaphysical attempts to understand God as the source of all reality become impenetrable. (The Experience of God, pp. 127-128)

While I have not come across any rejoinders from the analytic theologians to the criticisms advanced by Davies and Hart, I imagine they would emphatically reject any suggestion that in their prayers and reflections they are intending any other God but the Holy Creator rendered in the biblical witness and worshipped by Christians for the past two thousand years. All affirm that he is a metaphysically necessary being, existing in all possible worlds. As Swinburne puts it: “His existence is not merely an ultimate brute fact, but the ultimate brute fact” (The Coherence of Theism, p. 277). Most affirm that God created the world from out of nothing and continues to sustain it by his providential will. How then can the God of analytic theology be compared to a god? Aren’t the classical theists being more than a bit unfair?

Barry Miller does not think so. In chapter 1 of his book A Most Unlikely God, he contrasts the classical theistic understanding of divine nature and attributes with what he calls “perfect-being theology.” He cites Thomas Morris as a notable practitioner of this “Anselmian” method. Given the limited availability of this book, I thought I would quote Miller at length:

In challenging the controlling notion of God employed by perfect-being theologians, I have no wish to deny that he is indeed the absolutely perfect being. What I shall be denying, however, is their particular understanding of that notion. Aquinas, for example, understands a perfect being as Actus Purus, a being devoid of all potentiality; Maimonides conceives of it as One, a being ‘without any composition of plurality of elements’; but Anselmians understand it as a being having the maximally consistent set of great-making properties or perfections. Whether the Anselmians’ view is acceptable, however, depends on what they mean by a perfection. As explained by Morris, it is a property that fulfils the following conditions:

1.01.  It is better to have than not to have.
1.02.  It may vary in degree.
1.03.  It is ‘constituted by the logical maximum of an upwardly bounded, degreed great-making property.’ Omnipotence and omnipotence are offered as examples.

The procedure for determining which great-making properties belong to God could hardly be simpler, namely, if having property P contributes to the excellence of a thing that does have P, then an absolutely perfect being has P, otherwise the being does have not have P. Among those that pass the test are omnipotence, omnibenevolence, omniscience, and indeed all the perfections.

The Anselmians’ notion of a perfection has immediate implications for their understanding of God’s transcendence over his creatures. They succeed in setting him well apart from his creatures, many of which may perhaps have great-making properties but no one of which would have even one of them to the maximum degree possible. On this view, the gulf between God and creatures would therefore be wide, and perhaps unimaginably so, though it would not constitute an absolute divide. It is difficult to see how it could be more than a difference of degree, since the terms indicating his properties—‘powerful,’ ‘knowing,’ ‘loving,’ ‘merciful,’ ‘generous’ and so on—seem to be univocally of God and creatures. True, when applied to God, those terms are often qualified as ‘maximally powerful,’ ‘all knowing,’ ‘infinitely merciful,’ unsurpassably generous,’ but the qualifiers do nothing to change the sense of the terms they qualify. Hence, the role of ‘maximally,’ ‘all,’ ‘infinitely,’ and ‘unsurpassably’ cannot be that of alienans adjectives like ‘decoy’ in ‘decoy duck,’ or ‘negative’ in ‘negative growth,’ each of which does serve to change the sense of the term it qualifies. Rather, they are merely superlatives, which of course leave quite intact the sense of the terms they qualify. Thus understood, God’s properties are merely human ones, albeit extended to the maximum degree possible.

As conceived of by perfect-being theologians, therefore, God turns out to be simply the greatest thing around, some kind of super-being that would be quite capable of evoking admiration and wonder, but who could scarcely be described as being absolutely transcendent, or as being worthy of worship. The point is that the terms that perfect-being theology predicates of God are being used in precisely the sense that ipso facto precludes their being predicated of a God who is absolutely transcendent, since it is a sense in which they could equally be predicated of creatures. The difference between creatures and any God of whom they really could be predicated would therefore be simply one of degree. Although this may seem to be a hard saying, it follows straightforwardly from the fact that absolute transcendence cannot be attained merely by extending human attributes to whatever degree is deemed to be ‘maximal.’ The Anselmians’ God is therefore anything but ineffable, for not only can we talk about him, we can do so in precisely the same terms as those we use in talking about humans. Such a view succeeds in presenting God in terms that are comfortingly familiar, but only at the price of being discomfitingly anthropomorphic. (pp. 1-3)

The give-away here for Miller is the univocity of language for God. For perfect being theology, to say that God is “wise” and that Plato is “wise” is basically to say the same thing, though God’s wisdom is also qualified to be far, far greater. In this sense, the eternal Creator and his creatures share all sorts of properties in common. The difference between the two entities is relative, not absolute—at least so it appears.

The contrast between the God of analytic theology and the God of the Church Fathers and medieval doctors is stark. Although St Basil of Caesarea and St Gregory of Nyssa may have affirmed the univocal use of language when speaking of the divine propria, they also insisted upon divine simplicity and the incomprehensibility of the divine essence. How they pulled this off is the burden of Andrew Radde-Gallwitz’s ground-breaking book, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity. But for the Cappadocian brothers, God remains absolute Mystery, as he was for St Augustine, St Maximus the Confessor, and St Thomas Aquinas.

But the Mystery appears to disappear with the analytics.

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David Bentley Hart on Theistic Personalism

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“Not for nothing does the Power of God suffer fatigue”

“Wearied by his journey, Jesus sat down beside a well. It was about the sixth hour.” Already divine mysteries begin. Not for nothing is Jesus wearied; not for nothing does the Power of God suffer fatigue. Not for nothing does he who refreshes the weary endure weariness. Not for nothing is he wearied, whose absence makes us weary, whose presence gives us strength.

Jesus is tired, tired out by his journey. He sits down. On the edge of a well he seats himself. It is midday, and he sits there exhausted. All these details have meaning. They are meant to signify something. They capture our attention, persuading us to knock and investigate further. We have Christ’s own exhortation to do so, for he said: “Knock and it will be opened to you.” May he, then, open up the meaning of this text to us as well as to you.

It was for your sake that Jesus was wearied by his journey. In Jesus we encounter divine power together with weakness. He is strong and weak at one and the same time: strong, because “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, present with God from the beginning.” Would you know how strong the Son of God is? “All things were made through him, and apart from him nothing came into being.”

The whole universe was made without effort. Could any greater power exist than the power of one who was able effortlessly to construct the entire universe? 

And would you know him in his weakness? “The Word was made flesh, and lived among us.” The power of Christ created you; the weakness of Christ recreated you. Christ’s power caused what did not exist to come into being; Christ’s weakness saved existing things from destruction. In his might he fashioned us; in his weakness he came in search of us.

Jesus, then, is weak, tired out after his journey. Now that journey of his, undertaken for our sake, was his incarnation. How could he otherwise journey when he is present everywhere, and absent from nowhere? To what place or from what place could he travel? In only one way could he come to us, and that was by assuming our visible human flesh.

Since then he condescended to come to us in that way, and to appear in the condition of a servant by taking to himself a human nature, that assumption of our nature was his journey.

 The fatigue caused by his journey, therefore, was the weariness Jesus experienced in our human nature. In his human body he was weak, but you must not be weak. You must be strong in his weakness, for “there is more power in divine weakness than in human strength.”

St Augustine of Hippo

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Meditating Four Quartets: The Dry Salvages (V)

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits, / To report the behaviour of the sea monster, / Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry, / Observe disease in signatures, evoke / Biography from the wrinkles of the palm / And tragedy from fingers; release omens / By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable / With playing cards, / fiddle with pentagrams / Or barbituric acids, or dissect / The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors— / To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual / Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press: / And always will be, some of them especially / When there is distress of nations and perplexity / Whether on the shores of  Asia, or in the Edgware Road. / Men’s curiosity searches past and future / And clings to that dimension.

“I have never been able to make up my mind,” comments Thomas Howard, “whether Eliot wrote the opening fifteen lines of this section (down to ‘… the Edgeware Road’) with especial relish—even, perhaps, a certain naughty glee” (Dove Descending, pp. 116-117). I agree. When I read these lines aloud, I always find myself reading them in a sardonic tone. I don’t think it’s just me. And for this reason I find them jarring and out-of-place. In my judgment they undermine both the spiritual seriousness and charity of the poem. It’s too easy to make fun of superstition. The poet is shooting fish in a barrel. “Eliot,” I want to say to him, “no matter how cleverly written, these words are unworthy of you and your poem. Go say one Our Father and three Hail Marys.”

The poet rejects the practices of divination, necromancy, tarot cards, palm-reading, and even psychoanalysis. “All these are usual / Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press.” These practices do not enlighten, do not heal and liberate, do not sanctify. Like a narcotic they only anesthetize and distract. But most importantly, they  enslave us to the oppressive sufferings of the past and the paralyzing terrors of the future. (When Eliot wrote these lines Nazi bombs were falling nightly on London.) They are a demonic substitute for the bracing asceticism commended to us by the Quartets. I wonder whether Eliot too quickly dismisses the ascetical benefits of psychoanalysis—can it not be a path to self-awareness and deliverance from delusion?—but I cannot contest that the method may also reinforce us in our self-absorption and close us to the transcendent presence of Eternity. (What Eternity? Freud might ask.) That people should turn to superstition during times of personal and national distress is understandable. We desire relief from pain and fear. Surely there must be a way for us to control events and protect ourselves from the calamities of which the poet has spoken in the first two movements. Eliot has little sympathy for this kind of spiritual superficiality. “Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage, / The prayer of the bone on the beach?” The popular remedies make empty promises. The primitive terror is not so easily transcended; suffering and death are inescapable. What is needed is not magical manipulation of occult power but surrender to the God who embraces past, present, and future in his infinite love.

We tend, in my judgment, to minimize the spiritual dangers of gnosticism and the occult. The Bible knows differently. God has given us solemn warning. Spiritual counterfeits can only lead to darkness, delusion, slavery, idolatry.

If a prophet arises among you, or a dreamer of dreams, and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder which he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or to that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him, and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and cleave to him. (Dt 13:1-4)

Hard words—harder words, perhaps, than those offered us by the poet.


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Esse and Essentia: What do these Thomist terms mean?

One of the big difficulties for me in reading St Thomas Aquinas (one of many) is that I don’t understand what his terminology means. This morning I came across this paper that helpfully explains the key terms—esse, essentia, ens, quidditia—that are essential to an understanding of Thomas’s views on deity and divine simplicity.  If the author hasn’t gotten the terms right, please do let me know.

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God Simply Is the Sheer Act of Existing

st-thomas-aq“The doctrine of God’s simplicity,” states James Dolezal, “reaches the zenith of expression and sophistication in the thought of Thomas Aquinas” (God Without Parts, p. 6). One might even argue that it forms the lynchpin of St Thomas’s understanding of divinity. The doctrine enables him to carefully distinguish deity from all created beings, firmly establishing God as absolute reality and ultimate explanation for the existence of the world. In his Summa Theologiae, Thomas examines the divine simplicity under multiple aspects and reaches the following conclusion:

God is not composed of extended parts (since he is not a body), nor of form and matter, nor does he differ from his own nature, nor his nature from his existence. Nor can we distinguish in him genus and difference, nor substance and accidents. It is therefore clear that God is in no way composite. Rather, he is entirely simple. (I.3.7)

Thomas’s predecessors in Christian theology, both in the East and the West, would have been well acquainted with the specific forms of composition that he denies of the eternal Creator; all, that is, except one—the denial in God of a distinction between his existence and his essence.

It is generally conceded that this is a distinction that was unknown, or not clearly known, in antiquity. It is a distinction that Greek seems verbally ill-equipped to make, since the word ousia does double duty for both essence and existence. It is a distinction that is generally thought to have been introduced into Western thought by Muslim thinkers such as Avicenna and Jewish thinkers such as Moses Maimonides, though perhaps hints of it can be found in Boethius’ De Hebdomadibus. (Frederick Bauerschmidt, Thomas Aquinas, p. 89)

This does not mean that Eastern theologians did not have at their disposal manifold ways to speak of God’s nature and aseity—just compare St John of Damascus’s discussion of divinity in On the Orthodox Faith—but apparently they lacked the conceptuality to equate divine existence and divine essence. With the Angelic Doctor a genuinely creative step-forward occurs:  there is in God not a whit of difference between what he is (his essence) and that he is (his existence). Ipsum Esse Subsistens—God is identical to his act of Being, or to phrase it a bit more colloquially, God is sheer existing.

Of every created entity, we may ask two questions: what is its nature, and does it actually exist? Answering the first question does not give us an answer to the second. Consider the question “What is ____?” If we fill the blank with the name of any thing we find in the world, we will be able to answer the question (assuming we know the answer) without mentioning its existence at all. If, for example, we ask, “What is a human being?” we might reasonably reply, “A rational animal.” We need not add the phrase “that exists.” It does not improve or clarify our response to the request for a definition. We can grasp the “what-it-is” of an entity, in other words, without having to determine whether it exists. As Bauerschmidt puts it: “Our act of understanding a thing’s quidditas [whatness] is something distinct from the act of judging whether things such as men or phoenixes really exist. And therefore, Thomas concludes, a thing’s existence must be different from its essence” (p. 89).

This distinction between essence and existence also applies to imaginary entities. If you ask me, “What are elves?” I will explain that they are rational children of Ilúvatar, but unlike human beings, they are immortal and exist as long as the world lasts. They do not suffer disease, and after reaching maturity they do not age. If slain, they are reincarnated in the Halls of Mandos. (If my answer perplexes, I refer you to the sacred writings of J. R. R. Tolkien.) I can say all of this while prescinding from the question whether elves exist or not (personally I hope they do). Existence, therefore, appears to be something that an essence receives—that which makes it actual. This is probably not a helpful way for me to express it, as it seems to reify existence and might be interpreted to mean that entities exist before they exist. Be that as it may (I ain’t no philosopher), the important thing to see is that the nature of something does not include the property of existence—except, says Aquinas, for God:

God is not only his own godhead; he is also his own existence. Firstly, properties that do not define a thing derive either from what does define it (when common to a species, like humour in men), or from an outside cause (like heat in water). But existence, if it does not define a thing, cannot derive from what does define it, for that would mean the thing depended on itself for existence. So unless existence defines God he must receive it from outside. Secondly, unless existence defines God he will have a potentially existent nature: for it is existence that realizes forms and nature. (We use the verb is to signify both the act of existing, and the mental uniting of predicate to subject which constitutes a proposition. In the first sense we cannot know the existence of God any more than we can define him; but we can say there is a God, framing a proposition about God which we can know to be true by argument from his effects.) (ST I.3.4; concisely rendered by Timothy McDermott, Summa Theologiae, p. 15)

No creature carries in itself the reason for its being. Every creature, therefore, is ontologically contingent—only by the grace of God does it exist—and therefore a metaphysical composite of essence and existence.  Commenting on the above passage from the Summa, Bauerschmidt writes:  “Existence is not a part of the definition of any created thing; even more, it cannot be derived from that definition, as the ability to laugh can be derived from the definition of human beings as rational animals, for the existence of a particular thing’s essence presupposes that the thing exist” (Holy Teaching, p. 59, n. 8). But not so with the eternal Creator, who is perfect simplicity. If God is God—that is to say, the ultimate and final answer to the question “Why does anything exist rather than nothing?” (the burden of the Five Ways)—then he cannot suffer from essence/existence composition. God does not potentially exist; he necessarily exists. Deity is the mystery where the ontological buck finally stops. Here is perhaps Thomas’s most important contribution to Christian reflection upon divinity. The eternal Creator and first mover must exist in and of himself. He cannot derive existence from some other source; otherwise the question of “why” would continue ad infinitum. But not only must God exist, he is his existence: the whatness of God is identical to his act of existing (ipsum essendi). “God exists (as is proved by the existence of his effects), explains Timothy McDermott, “but he does not share existence in the way everything else does, he is not a member of the genus thing—he is no thing, though not nothing. He is his own existence: not even the existence that other things share, but the doing of that existence” (p. xxxiii).

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The Three Rivers

The river of judgment sings a grave and foreboding song
As the mass of deceased human souls approaches its banks
Peals of thunder ring out from the ebony current
Causing men’s hearts to tremble with self-convicting dread

An angel carrying a balance of scales
Greets each terrified and shuddering sinner
Each son of Adam and daughter of Eve
Is guided into the somber waters

The river’s descant alternates between deeper, lower notes
And softer, higher notes as the wheat is separated from the chaff
Every life is laid bare by the song of heaven’s pure probity
Not one deed is forgotten in the halls of eternal justice

As each mortal slowly emerges from the waters of examination
He comes face to face with the Divine Adjudicator on the Judgment Seat
Tenderly touching the chin of each humbled transgressor
He turns their gaze toward a second river of ardent song

The river of purification sings a cacophonous song
As all those who have been judged apprehensively approach its banks
The sound of a fierce conflagration issues forth from the fervid current
Confronting each man and woman with the necessity of purgation

An angel carrying the tools of a refiner
Receives each marred and blemished soul who has been tried
Saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers
Are dipped in the waters of divine cautery

The river’s tune clangs in a state of spiritual disquietude
While every sinner is called upon to pay the uttermost farthing
The dross of sin is removed by the fire of the Cosmic Physician
For the new Eden will not tolerate a single impurity

After each living soul emerges from the waters of expiation
He comes face to face with the great I Am in the ancient burning bush
A still small voice speaks softly to the chastised from the transcendent blaze
Whispering to go to a third river of redemptive melody

The river of redemption sings a euphonious song
As a multitude of human souls approaches its banks
Soothing notes emanate from the pacific current
Bringing eternal healing to the whole human race

An angel carrying the balm of clemency
Lovingly embraces each liberated soul
One by one, all those judged and purified
Are baptized in the salvific waters

The holy river fills the air with a faint sound of heavenly bells
As the salve of divine mercy is applied most magnanimously
Innocence and perfection are finally restored
Hearts healed, souls cleansed by the restorative waters

As all the redeemed rise up from the baptismal font
They come face to face with the Way, the Truth, and the Life
He escorts them to the verdant pastures of the Elysian fields
Watered by the mists of everlasting felicity

~ The Poetic Universalist

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